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The Twin Dilemma

25 Jul

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009

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It’s such an unfortunate coincidence, you have to laugh.

The very month DWM publishes the results of its Mighty 200 survey, Doctor Who’s 200th most popular adventure is released on DVD. They should pop a sticker on the box to celebrate the fact. ‘From the people who brought you Timelash and Time-Flight‘ perhaps, in large, friendly letters.

And – what fun! – The Caves of Androzani is at the top of the list. Two serials, produced on the same watch – with the astonishing final episode of Caves broadcast just six days before the astonishing first episode of The Twin Dilemma – but when we assess their relative worth, we find the whole history of Doctor Who slotted between them. It’s a remarkable thing.

But what does The Twin Dilemma’s placing, and that survey as a whole, tell us about how we judge success and failure within the world of Doctor Who? To my mind, what the top stories have in common is a robust commitment to the fictional world they offer. When we watch Doctor Who we pray that it won’t break its own spell; that it will never make us think of studios, of cameras, of actors. We know it’s a TV show, we revel in the trivia and relish the gossip, but what we really want is to believe, to be transported to another place for 25 or 45 minutes. And so strong is that desire, we are a more forgiving audience than we sometimes affect to be. Even in that Top 10, there’s the Magma Beast doing its budgerigar shuffle through the caves of Androzani. Calamitous clams om-nom-nom beneath the surface of Skaro. In the sewers of Victorian London lurk the results of Weng-Chiang’s unholy experiments in upholstery.

These burdens strain the fragile threads from which our disbelief is suspended, but we accept them. A strong story and a spirited script can weave a new world out of words alone, and still allow latitude for disaster further along the production process. However, when a story falls at that first hurdle – when its script is arrant gibberish from the off – then it’s impossible to forgive. And, as the survey proves, impossible to forget. The Twin Dilemma – a story of alien twins kidnapped by a giant slug to aid his conquest of the Universe – does almost nothing to help us believe in it. At times, it almost looks like a deliberate send-up of Doctor Who.

So let’s accentuate the positive, just for a moment. Skilled guest stars Maurice Denham, Edwin Richfield and Kevin MacNally use what energy they have left after wrestling the script into submission to breathe some life into Azmael, Mestor and Hugo. The twins themselves have long been the target of criticism, but really, they’re not so bad. However, following the casting of the Conrad brothers, someone should have changed the names of their characters. The boys speak with a soft ‘r’, so ‘Romulus and Remus’ is too cruel. Their pronunciation has always invited cheap jokes – but not here. Well, at least not yet.

Also in the ‘plus’ column, the model effects are as good as you’ll find in any 80s tale. But that’s the only compliment we can pay the design and dressing of this story. Look! The twins have a foot-square Rubik’s Cube in their living room, so gosh, they must be clever. A computer console is wrapped in Bacofoil and we’re expected not to notice. Perhaps that lazy zig-zag of gaffer tape on the front was supposed to draw the eye? There’s no more to be said on the subject of the Sixth Doctor’s costume, but it looks positively restrained alongside Hugo Lang’s Quality Street kimono. And our monster, Mestor – imagined as a giant slug when everyone must have known such a thing was impossible to realise – is a disaster. It’s the boggle-eyed Penfold stare and feeble flapping flippers that really do for the stupid thing.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The shoddy monster and the stupid coats are symptoms, not the sickness. They are symptoms of a production team admitting defeat from the off. Anthony Steven clearly didn’t believe a word he was writing. Director Peter Moffatt clearly didn’t understand a word he was reading. As Steven laboured on these scripts – according to lore – his typewriter blew up, causing him to miss deadlines. What a selfless sacrifice on the part of that humble Olivetti. When even inanimate objects turn against you, it’s time to admit defeat; as the forces of Nazi Germany discovered in the final, decisive battle of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

However, if we are to apportion fair blame for the failure of The Twin Dilemma – and it’s no fun if we don’t – then stand up Eric Saward, our script editor. It was his job to salvage something from this mess. Even if the meandering plot was beyond help, he should at least have worked harder on the dialogue. It’s a challenge to choose the most pathetic line. “I found Zanium on the floor! It looks serious!” is a contender. As made-up space nouns go, ‘Zanium’ is as low rent as it gets, but it’s the mundane qualification of “on the floor” that really brings you down. Perhaps worst of all is the Doctor’s reaction when he learns that Mestor is dispensing “death by embolism.” “Little tiny bubbles go very well in champagne and purgatives, Noma,” he expounds. “But not in the blood.” What? Still, this stands as the Doctor’s first and so far last reference to bowel movements, however oblique. How appropriate that it should occur here.

As for the Sixth Doctor… Well, he’s Saward’s fault too. Colin Baker is doing what he can with the thin material dished up, but he never makes a connection with us, never transmits any warmth through our screens. The shocking bi-polarity caused by regeneration has always been, and will always be, a great idea, but it’s vital to make at least one of the Doctor’s two personalities likeable. We can cope with a smug ying – for a few episodes at least – if the yang isn’t equally insufferable. Here, we’re left feeling uneasy up to and beyond the Doctor’s final insincere smile at Peri.

Of course, stories of a compassionate, friendly Sixth Doctor would eventually come, once Baker was free of Saward’s stewardship and safe in the embrace of his fans. But might some of The Twin Dilemma‘s other players find redemption too? Well, we see a wobbly black sprite of Mestor’s ‘soul’ flee his death in Part Four, so his evil may well survive somewhere. Perhaps he’ll return in Matt Smith’s first series? “And now on BBC1, a new Doctor meets an old adversary…” Similarly, the twins are still in the TARDIS when the credits roll, so who knows what other exciting adventures they had with the Doctor and Peri? Set to it, Big Finish! The Sylvest boys deserve to see the universe – on audio. Romulus and Remus remonstrate with Rutans and Rills on Ravalox and Ribos. Imagine how that might sound.
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DVD Extras

Look 100 Years Younger is a feeble discussion of the Doctor’s costumes, with Colin Baker and ‘media personality’ Amy Lamé stating the obvious for ten minutes. “Ah! There’s the famous scarf!” says Lamé, greeting a clip of Tom Baker wearing his famous scarf. But the vague chunter is all just preamble to this programme’s one great trick, where some nifty computer wizardry intercedes in the final scene of The Twin Dilemma and redresses the Sixth Doctor in a natty black suit and tie, which gives him the look of a civil servant turned serial killer.

Our star pays a visit to Blue Peter in the first of two little gems from the archive offered on this disc. Presenter Janet Ellis has a delightfully mumsy interview style. “Tell me more about the Gastropods,” she says, in the same breezy, matter-of-fact tone she might use to ask a boy scout about his badge for whittling. Having shown a short clip of Mestor, Janet adds: “These enemies of Doctor Who do have a habit of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.” Indeed they do, but in this case simply to make it easier to reach the ‘off’ switch. A further clip shows the Doctor in full homicidal rage – astride Peri, his hands tight around her throat. A bit early in the evening for that, surely? Was Blue Peter trying to launch a dark new era, serving up teatime brutality for tots? “And now it’s over to Simon, who’s certainly got his hands full today. He’s making another visit to his dad’s farm in Dethick – and those lambs won’t slaughter themselves!”

On a visit to Breakfast Time, Baker is joined by Nicola Bryant. Asked how long he’d like to play the Doctor, Baker replies, “For as long as they’ll have me.” It’s the sort of thing any modest actor might say when joining a long-running series, but in Baker’s case he was exactly right. When Bryant comments, “I’m looking forward to a whole new season with Colin,” the camera makes a queasy lurch to the left. Perhaps a ghost of future calamity was already in the machine, or Michael Grade had a special ‘abort’ control fitted to his desk upstairs.

There’s no production documentary here; perhaps not surprising given than the story’s writer, director, producer and two of its principal guest stars are now dead. It falls to an enjoyable commentary to provide the sweet distraction of gossip. While there’s little new to be learned – with many of the anecdotes now well-enough established to play simultaneously on the ‘info text’ subtitles – we do discover that Maurice Denham was allergic to prawns. The charming Kevin McNally joins Baker and Bryant to recall happy days on set, and acts almost as moderator, questioning and even gently challenging his co-stars.

Sadly, the absence of a documentary means we are deprived of the one thing we really want from this DVD – a chance to see the Conrad twins as they are today. On the commentary, McNally recalls bumping into one of them a few years ago, and reports that he’s now “a very tall boy.” We may presume they both are.

Happily, your reviewer can offer a little more information. At the 2005 TV Bafta ceremony, when the newly-revived Doctor Who won a Bafta for Best Drama, Russell T Davies and team stepped up on stage to collect the trophy. Less than 10 minutes later, Andrew Conrad – once Remus, and much later the producer of Jamie’s School Dinners – was standing in the same spot, to collect the award for Best Factual Series.

It’s such a lovely coincidence, you have to laugh.

Terror of the Zygons

7 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013. See also: Class 4G

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BBCDVD3482 UK Zygons DVD-sc6-1You have to feel sorry for Broton, Warlord of the Zygons. There he is, quietly minding his own business in his cosy home-from-home in the Scottish Highlands, when some seriously antisocial neighbours move in just along the glen: a stinking great oil company, no less. For hundreds of years, Broton and his wee clan have led a peaceful sort of life at the bottom of Loch Ness – entirely self-sufficient thanks their big underwater space cow – and then all of a sudden the neighbourhood goes to pot with this constant banging and clanging and drilling. Broton, as you might imagine, is furious. His family is furious. Even the big underwater space cow is furious. And then comes even worse news for our poor Warlord – there’s been a disaster back where he comes from, and now all his long-lost relatives are coming to stay! It’s terribly fussing. What is he going to do?

What Broton does next is the story of Terror of the Zygons. However, even after four thrill-packed episodes, some key questions go frustratingly unanswered. What the heck has Broton been up to for all those centuries? When did he learn to drive a car? What exactly do Zygons smell of? And how do you milk a Loch Ness Monster? (Actually – we can answer that last one straight away. Carefully.)

While there may be a handful of Doctor Who adventures more widely and wildly adored than this one, there can surely be no finer single episode of Doctor Who than Part One of Terror of the Zygons. It is 24 minutes of perfection, a Platonic Ideal of Doctor Who-ness. You wouldn’t niggle with a single note or nuance of it. The script bubbles with intrigue and fun. The performances are perfectly pitched. The direction – from virtuoso Douglas Camfield – is in a class all its own.

The Brigadier has tugged upon the final, fraying thread of the Doctor’s cosmic leash, and brought him back down to Earth with a bump. Our hero may be delighted to find himself in Scotland, but he’s sorely aggrieved to discover there’s work to be done. Three North Sea oil rigs have been destroyed by an unknown force, and UNIT has been called in to investigate. Our briefing for this crisis – tidily scripted, smartly played – allows each of our lead characters to be absolutely themselves. While Mr Huckle of the Hibernian Oil Company bemoans the loss of millions of pounds, the Brigadier immediately insists that the loss of hundreds of lives is his greater concern. Mention of oil puts the Doctor in a foul mood – trendily fuming about mankind’s reliance on “a mineral slime” – but he snaps straight back to his own good nature when the Brigadier sharply asks of him: “Do you want more men to die?” Sarah, the journalist, is equally true to herself, and sets about interviewing the locals. And Harry, the medic, is off to the infirmary on the hunt for clinical clues. Meanwhile, alien eyes observe our gang’s every move, and alien voices hiss the most wonderful load of old cobblers. “Diastelic reading seven-oh-three,” says one. “Increase the sonic core tone by three remars!” replies another. Everything is so perfectly gorgeous, it makes you want to kiss someone.

The twists of this tale are now so familiar to us – aliens, the Loch Ness Monster – that it’s easy to forget how subtly the story tries to misdirect us at the start. Is this a tale of ghosts and ghouls? Is it even, as the close-up of those brutish eyes and the full moon behind that first collapsing rig might seem to suggest, a tale of werewolves? The first episode tingles with the uncanny as pub landlord Angus McRanald – blessed with ‘second sight’ – tells the story of “a foreigner from the Black Isle” who went missing on Tulloch Moor, or “the Jameson boys”; one of whom disappeared, while his brother was found “two days later… aff his heid! His eyes – his eyes were terrible to see!” It’s pure whimsy, but played and directed with sublime conviction. Elisabeth Sladen is especially good as Sarah here – wide-eyed as she’s slowly drawn in by the ghost story, but then shaking herself out of her reverie with a pragmatic: “Evil spirits don’t destroy oil rigs!”

Doctor Who has always sought to strike a balance between horror and humour. Generally, the scares and the jokes take turns, and that rollercoaster of tone generates the show’s essential manic energy. And at its very best, Doctor Who can seamlessly pitch-bend silly to serious and back again, while standing perfectly still and staring you straight in the eye. “Might as well forget about security in Tulloch,” shouts a flippant Sarah over the sound of Angus’s bagpipes. “The landlord here’s got second sight!” With perfect comic timing, the bagpipes abruptly stop. But then the Doctor, velvet and sepulchral: “You know what he was playing? Flowers of the Forest. A lament for the dead.” The fact that Tom Baker himself wrote that line gives some clue as to how deeply everyone cared about the work they were doing. This kind of grown-up wit smoulders all the way through Terror of the Zygons.

Doctor Who’s greatest episode ends, as it must, with one of Doctor Who’s greatest cliffhangers. It’s another directorial masterpiece: the track-in, the whirl, the crash-zoom and that terrifying, sucking ‘honk’ as a Zygon bears down on Sarah. What an entrance!

zygons_3776It’s entirely self-evident that the Zygons are the most beautifully realized monsters in the history of Doctor Who, but it’s surely worth lingering for a moment to consider why they work so well. They feel so alive: fleshy, bloated and throbbing with alien juices, like something that has really grown, and is still growing. Many monster costumes are ruined by their one-size-fits-all bagginess, but the skin of a Zygon is stretched painfully taut across its ribs and back. And the devil is surely in the detail: the hundreds of ulcerous tubules blistering the shoulders and hips; the natural symmetry of the lines of the bigger, barnacle-like growths that extend four ways from the crown of the head over the backbone and sternum, and along the arms and legs; the thick veins that fill fat fingers. Praise is of course due to costume designer James Acheson, but the real star is surely sculptor John Friedlander, for whom the creatures must have been a labour of love – a love which shows in every grotesque protuberance.

But good looks can only get you so far in this life. The other secret of the Zygons’ success is that Broton, their leader, is gifted with such a deft yet boisterous performance from actor John Woodnutt. He plays the creature in both its natural form and its human disguise as the la-di-da Duke of Forgill, and each is a total delight.

Like all great Doctor Who villains, Duke Broton is absolutely convinced that he’s the hero of his story, and that everyone around has been gathered merely to pay homage to his genius and wit. This essential snootiness and condescension mean that Broton is also – again like all the best Doctor Who villains – quite breathtakingly camp. For a Duke, he really is a proper old queen. As such, he effortlessly passes another key qualifying test for a place in the first division of Doctor Who villainy, and that is this: how easy are they to imagine as a judge on The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent? Broton, Davros, Harrison Chase, Trau Morgus, Mrs Gillyflower… you can immediately picture any of them passing withering comment on a parade of chirping idiots and clumsy hoofers. Harrison Chase would roll his eyes disdainfully and steeple his black-gloved hands. Mrs Gillyflower would rant and rave and reduce ’em to tears. Davros would idly tap his middle finger next to a big red button marked ‘Total destruction’. Morgus would deliver his putdowns to his own private camera, to one side of the judges’ desk. Our Duke of Forgill would purse his lips, smile an insincere smile, and then tell some poor wannabe from Wolverhampton that she’s totally, utterly unhinged, must be, and that he loathes her abomination of a body. And this kind of approach, one dares suggest, is something that Doctor Who might think a little more about today. The best Doctor Who has the best villains, and the modern series could surely trade a few ‘broken spring’ stories for a few more outrageously self-regarding blackguards who pass the X Factor judge test.

p01d6gsyBroton’s finest moment comes when he sets out from the Zygon spaceship to pose as Forgill at the World Energy Conference in London – an attack on which will spearhead his conquest of the Earth. “When phase two is completed, I shall broadcast my demands to the world,” he says – at which point he pops on a bowler hat and merrily spins an umbrella. Now hold on just one second. We know that the Zygons can morph into a copy of a human in their custody, and that clothes somehow come as part of the magic. But the real Duke doesn’t have a bowler hat, so Broton must have packed one specially. Now that is class. For all his contempt for “puny humans”, there’s a definite feeling that Broton finds greater pleasure in being a Scottish Laird than he does in being a Zygon Warlord. He’s quite brilliant at it, especially when deploying stinging sarcasm in the face of the Doctor’s theories about the Loch Ness Monster  (“Aliens? With wireless sets?”). Broton may be stepping up for the conquest of the Earth, but you feel he’d be much happier just busying about Inverness-shire, roamin’ the gloamin’ in his Range Rover, offering people lifts if he likes them, and pretending to get their names wrong if he doesn’t. After all, the Zygons have been stranded on Earth for hundreds of years, and a secret passage leads from their ship under Loch Ness to the Duke’s antique bookcase, so just how many successive incumbents of Forgill Castle has Broton impersonated? “My family has served this country for seven centuries,” says the Duke at the start of our story. Later we discover that this was Broton talking – but might he still be telling the truth, and speaking of himself and his Zygon crew? They’ve been around for about seven centuries too, and, as they all suckle the lactic fluid of their pet Skarasen, might they not be an actual family? So if the Doctor seems somewhat laid back during this adventure, perhaps it’s because he has Duke Broton sussed right from the start. When our faux Forgill drives away from the Fox Inn in Part One, the Doctor looks contemplatively after him. Later, his voice is loaded with sarcasm when he says “Your Grace”. Clearly the Doctor is onto him. But what gave it away? Well, while the Zygons may be adept at changing their shape, how good are they at changing their smell? This Duke of Forgill probably stinks of fish and stale monster milk, but everyone’s simply too polite to mention it.

While Broton is reasonably competent, his other Zygons let the side down by getting almost everything wrong. They’re certainly nowhere near as good at pretending to be humans. They fail to kill our heroes on several occasions, and when Broton leaves them in charge of their ship, barely five minutes pass before the Doctor blows it up. (There’s a hilarious moment when the Doctor activates the Zygon fire alarm and all the Zygons troop out like schoolchildren. Do they have regular drills? Are they trotting off to ‘Muster Point C’? They really are a deliciously gormless bunch.)

But what the other Zygon-humans may lack in brains, they make up for in pure monstrosity. This is one story that certainly lives up to the lurid promise of its title. The Zygon version of Sister Lamont lingers long in the memory of every viewer: blood stickily clotting on her arm, her head cocked and gimlet-eyed, like a carrion bird poised to rip into its prey. “It’s just a scratch,” she says, so softly, before bludgeoning a man with a rock. More terrifying yet is the sequence where Sarah pursues the Zygon version of Harry. Truly, Douglas Camfield’s direction of this story – and of these filmed location scenes in particular – takes the breath away. It’s pure British folk horror: Sarah’s breath frosting as she runs through a wide and bleak landscape of denuded trees and thick ruts of mud. Crows caw behind that wonderful incidental music, as the wistful flutes of Part One gives way to driving strings and urgent clarinet. And then we’re with Zygon-Harry in the barn, as he drives his pitchfork right down the camera lens – straight at us. You’d take an instinctive step back from the TV if you weren’t already sitting down. In his wide shot, Camfield fleetingly establishes thick wooden spikes jagging upward from the floor of the barn. He can’t show the Zygon actually impaled on a stake, but he can suggest it to our subconscious. And then there’s that terrible, primal, echoing ‘moo’ as the creature dies. It’s a moo that sums up Terror of the Zygons in miniature: grotesque, strangely mournful, beautifully judged, and totally unforgettable.

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DVD Extras

Not only is this two-disc set a celebration of one of Doctor Who’s greatest adventures, it’s also a tribute to the skill, imagination and astonishing hard work of the Doctor Who Restoration Team and many of their fellow travellers – the people whose talents have made this DVD range a triumph from first to last. There’s something of a party atmosphere to this release; a loud, lusty and well-earned last hurrah. Terror of the Zygons was long planned to be the last complete twentieth-century Doctor Who serial released on DVD. However, the gods of good fortune have heard our prayers and intervened, meaning that that position will instead be claimed – and hopefully only for a short time – by The Enemy of the World. And here’s a thing… The location filming for Episode 1 of The Enemy of the World took place at Climping Beach in West Sussex. And the only other time this location was used by Doctor Who was for Terror of the Zygons. One is left breathless by the glorious, exquisite timing of it all.

For Zygons, sound guru Mark Ayres has contrived – by some staggering witchcraft – to offer us not only an ‘isolated score’ audio track (and what a score!) but also a 5.1 surround mix. How is this even possible? Maybe we shouldn’t ask. Like staring into the burning heart of the TARDIS, the minds of mere mortals are not built to know such ineffable power.

Producer Ed Stradling provides our behind-the-scenes documentaries. This is right and proper, as Stradling has been behind the majority of the most creative films in the range; he set the standard for others to beat way back on the Earthshock DVD, ten bloomin’ years ago. Here, as then, Stradling deploys a fan commentator to join the dots and act as de facto narrator, so we can all wrinkle our noses and say: “Well, what does he know about it?” The so-called ‘experts’ on Earthshock, whoever they were, have long since been lost to history, so here we have TV Historian Simon Farquhar, who peers sullenly out from under his fringe like Princess Di in her interview with Martin Bashir. ‘TV Historian’ sounds like a cool job, but sadly they don’t teach it in every school. What a shame. Instead of an afternoon of PE, the Fridays of childhood would have been greatly enlivened by double Quatermass followed by an energetic half-hour of Applied Dennis Potter.

The production documentary is a laudably thorough affair. Writer Robert Banks Stewart makes for particularly charming company. “I was fascinated by the idea that either the Loch Ness Monster existed, or it didn’t,” he tells us, so he’s clearly a man who likes to keep all bases covered. As the story behind this story unfolds, even a mere photograph of long-dead script editor and all-time No.1 hero Robert Holmes, with a pipe clamped between his teeth like Hemingway or Tolkien, prompts one to list the limbs that might be cheerfully traded for a chance to spend an hour in his company, learning the most secret alchemy of Doctor Who.

The highlight of the ‘extras’ disc is the outstanding Remembering Douglas Camfield, also from Ed Stradling. It’s a robust and fitting tribute to the great man, placing his Doctor Who work in the context of a hugely successful TV career. Camfield’s son Joggs and actress Celia Imrie (a star of Camfield’s 1981 Scottish sci-fi horror serial The Nightmare Man, scripted by Robert Holmes and notably Zygonesque in atmosphere) pay moving tribute to a man who they loved very much, and who clearly loved them greatly in return. Imrie recalls how, while shots were being set up on location, Camfield would play the ocarina – a particularly haunting instrument. So it’s no surprise that the director brought in Geoffrey Burgon to provide his fluting scores for Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, rather than settling for, well… shall we say the more robust charms of Dudley Simpson.

Two gems from the BBC archive capture Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen at their most beautiful. Baker is interviewed, on location for Terror of the Zygons, by the local news programme South Today, and he’s magnificently detached and aloof as the presenter prattles on. He impishly remarks that taking the role of the Doctor means he can no longer enjoy his “bachelor benders” – though he was hardly a stranger to the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses as his years with the show played out. When asked about the episode he’s filming, Baker says that he’s come to this Sussex beach “to make something inventive and agreeable” – which is as charming a mission statement for Doctor Who as any you’ll hear.

Elisabeth Sladen is the host of Merry-Go-Round: The Fuel Fishers – a children’s educational show from 1977, in which we learn how oil rigs work. So evocative of The Sontaran Experiment is her canary yellow raincoat, and so characteristically earnest Sladen’s approach, that it’s almost like a little lost adventure for Sarah Jane Smith. As she flies out across the North Sea by helicopter, Sladen has to react to her own pre-recorded ‘thinks’ track, and we’re reminded of the truth, the fun, and the utter conviction she brought to her performance as Sarah. No one ever believed the magic more.

Joining this curtain call of Doctor Who DVD master craftsmen is Martin Wiggins, who provides a typically majestic set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of wit, wisdom and whimsy. With Wiggins as our guide, Terror of the Zygons comes to life in all kinds of new ways; not least with the revelation that John Woodnutt would pass the time between takes in the studio by tap-dancing on his mark – in full Broton costume. One prays that the raw studio footage turns up one day.

ian_lis2However, it’s another lost wonder which proves the final great coup of this DVD, and indeed of the whole range, as a long-missing scene of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arriving in Scotland is restored to us. And how perfectly magical it is to see them together once more, out on location and gathered around their wonderful, tumbledown, potting-shed TARDIS – all so young and handsome and eager for adventure. And it’s surely a perfectly-timed opportunity to admire the manifold skills of the Restoration Team – and colourist Stuart Humphreys – who painstakingly pieced this lost gem together from scattered remnants.

When Terror of the Zygons was first released on VHS videocassette back in 1988, it was edited and chopped down to an omnibus. Now, on DVD, it’s bigger and more beautiful than ever. And if that isn’t a fitting tribute to the dedication, talent and sheer willpower of Doctor Who fans, then I don’t know what is. So let’s celebrate.

After all, it’s our birthday too.

The Ice Warriors

25 Oct

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

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doctor-who-the-ice-warriors-dvdThe chief protagonist of The Ice Warriors is neither human nor alien; it’s a glacier. This is entirely apt. For as the cold, white vastness of the story rolls inexorably on, you find yourself powerless to resist its numbing creep. First, your higher brain functions begin to slow. Are there six episodes? Sixty? And, as you watch what must surely be the same handful of scenes play over and over, a loss of motor control soon follows. Your jaw drops slackly open, drool stringing to your chest. The soporific drone of the dialogue is drowned out by the thump-thump of your own heartbeat in your ears. And then – thump-thump – even that – thump – gradually gives way – thump – to silence… Weeks pass unheeded. Months. Five thousand years or more slip by, until, one day, a plucky adventurer disentombs your frozen body and puzzles at your fate. Why the expression of horror? Why is one hand desperately clawing out in front of you? And then he’ll see it: tragically just out of reach of your outstretched, frigid finger. The off switch.

The Ice Warriors should be pure gold. It bears the hallmarks of a cherished era of Doctor Who: the now rare and precious middle Troughtons. There’s a lonely outpost of harried humans under threat from alien incursion. There’s a monster menace that will come to be considered one of the all-time greats. There’s even a moral message hidden away in there: that individual free will is no less valuable – and can sometimes be even more valuable – when it cuts against what is considered the common good of society. But, despite this distinguished provenance, The Ice Warriors fails to shine. Key characters are blandly written and some are gravely miscast to damaging effect. The message is mixed and muffled. There’s just about enough storyline to fill an egg cup, and even that is repeatedly sidelined to make room for tedious debate about the correct way to operate a made-up machine. In fact, the majority of the story distracts itself with a conjectured threat that turns out, after five episodes of to-ing and fro-ing, never to have existed at all.

The TARDIS delivers the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria a dozen or more centuries into the future. This Earth, this realm, this England – the whole blessed plot – is disappearing under a thick mantle of snow and ice. Now you might think, reasonably enough, that glaciation is an unlikely subject for a fast-moving drama; but these glaciers, scorning even their own idiom, move like greased lightning. Attempting to halt their onslaught is the staff of Britannicus Base (a stately home under a protective dome, like a snow globe where the snow falls outside) and their Ioniser machine. When the Doctor and friends arrive at the base, there’s mention they might be evacuated to Africa, so that’s clearly where the rest of the population of Britain has scarpered – although presumably the most patriotic held out at least until Cheltenham was chest-deep in Chinstrap penguins. A few of the most bloody-minded still scavenge a meagre existence out on the tundra, stalked by wolves, bears and a mysterious, unseen soprano.

The Ice Warriors is desperate to play its scenario for real. To that end, every scene at Britannicus involves an earnest, worthy and generally tiresome debate. There are arguments about proper procedure, arguments about respect for management, arguments about whether one should play it safe in hope of moderate gains, or play the buccaneer and risk all in hope of the big prize. To sell his ‘real’ world to us, writer Brian Hayles co-opts the voice of the business soap opera. This format thrived on TV in Britain in the 1960s and on into the 80s, through such hit series as The Plane Makers, The Brothers and Howards’ Way. The dialogue of the business soap consists, almost exclusively, of the frequent and urgent declamation of the current state of affairs, preferably backed up with spurious facts and figures. “But you can’t argue with facts, John! Output is down by 13%. If this continues, we could lose everything!” or “Damn it, Jan! Frere Holdings now has a 51% share of Wilde Mouldings!” or “Don’t be a fool, Joan! You realise what’s at stake here? Failure is not an option!” The Ice Warriors further attempts to plug into this kind of ‘reality’ through the casting of Peter Barkworth as Leader Clent. Barkworth had made his name in the mid-60s in The Power Game, a popular soap anatomising the travails of running a family building firm. In The Ice Warriors he is playing, to all intents and purposes, the troubled managing director of Ioniser Incorporated, who vents his daily frustrations upon his loyal secretary Miss Garrett. “If we fail, the whole programme for glacier containment is in danger!” yells Clent. “It’s out of phase! Seven point two four!” “We cannot afford to make mistakes!” “Activate all circuits, woman!” It’s urgent, bang-your-fist-on-the-desk stuff – and there’s reams of it – but we are emotionally untouched. We’re told the stakes are high, but however much they shout and sigh, it’s impossible to feel anything in response other than a dull tension headache. One thing’s for certain, however: if melodrama could melt glaciers, then just one blast from this script would surely drown us all.

What fun is to be found at Britannicus Base depends on how one feels about Clent. Barkworth’s performance has long been fêted as one of Doctor Who’s great guest turns, but it can hardly be said to be an exercise in subtlety. Like when Tony Hancock played Hamlet with a crutch and a parrot, Clent’s not altogether convincing limp was Barkworth’s own idea, and he had to be talked out of throwing in a stammer as well. Of course, Barkworth may be making a sincere attempt to tickle-up what he recognises as page after page of repetitive dialogue, but what we’re left with is a twitchy, immodest performance of the kind that’s normally the preserve of the prime suspect in an episode of Columbo. By that measure, it comes in at a healthy 8 out of 10 on the Patrick McGoohan scale. (Converted back into Doctor Who units, that’s about two Roger Lloyd Packs, but merely half a Paul Darrow.) Gifted by the costume designer with a silver-topped Perspex cane – his eyes must have lit up at first sight of that – Barkworth wildly tripods about the place, wailing his woes and pulling focus like a proper old ham. He’s at his most peculiar in Part Five when required to carry a clipboard. The cane has to go under one arm, and the resultant stiff-legged strut makes Barkworth look like he’s had an accident in his onesie. It’s also notable how the vigour of his showboating is in direct ratio to his distance from the show’s real star. Patrick Troughton does everything by doing almost nothing, and when he comes close he acts as a dampening field upon Barkworth’s full-spectrum broadcast.

Much of Clent’s squawk is on the subject of Penley, his top scientist. Penley’s the only man who knows to how to operate the Ioniser properly, which is surely a serious recruitment oversight given that the future of mankind is at stake. Controlling old Clent has squeezed Penley until his pips squeaked, causing him to run away and shack up with a scavenger called Storr in, of all places, an abandoned greenhouse. The Ice Warriors is lent an unexpected undercurrent thanks to the way Penley and Storr bicker like a middle-aged married couple. When we first meet them, Storr is injured in an avalanche, and Penley leans in to gently brush polystyrene from his cheeks, so we immediately sense a certain tendresse underlying their relationship. (This feeling can be enhanced, if you care to play along at home, by shouting “Go on, just kiss ’im!” every time the pair appear on screen.) Playing Penley and Storr are Peter Sallis and Angus Lennie, fine actors both, but here they’re comically miscast in roles that are poorly written to begin with. Penley, surely, is supposed to be about 20 years old; the firebrand young genius of Britannicus, rebelling against the old, ‘bad’ science that’s brought the Earth so close to its doom. Scavenger Storr should be in his 50s, a Grizzly Adams wise man of the mountains, showing how a trust in Nature herself will ultimately heal the world. Storr should be Penley’s hero. Instead, Sallis and Lennie give us a morose middle-manager beset by his shrewish wife. “You wouldn’t know what to do without me!” shrieks Storr when Penley suggests he might leave him, and it brings to mind McKellen and Jacobi in the sitcom Vicious. “We’re just friends,” covers Penley to a colleague later, but don’t believe a word of it. Storr is a whining, depressive idiot; so it must be love, or Penley would never put up with him. Furthermore, Clent’s own rage – a fury at his own impotence coupled with a burning obsession with Penley, which has prompted the put-upon Penley to fling himself into the arms of another – makes The Ice Warriors feel like a study of a doomed love triangle. You may scoff, but at least this whimsical reading lends a human element to the whole affair. Otherwise, our supposedly heroic Penley is no more than a needy egotist who’s willing to leave the whole planet to freeze just because he can’t get along with his boss.

TwoAndVargaTIWAnd so, thank goodness for Penley’s colleague Arden, who finds a scaly alien frozen into the glacier, drags him home and accidentally thaws him back to seven-foot-something of hissing crocodilian life. Varga the Ice Warrior steals the show, and there’s no denying that he’s an impressive specimen of monsterkind. It’s the details that make him so appealing. The leatherly lips, which fail to quite synchronise with the hissing voice, are oddly unnerving. The huge Lego hands – which must at least make the Ice Warriors the dominant race in the galaxy when it comes to carrying mugs of coffee over long distances – look like they could really do you a mischief. It was Brian Hayles’ avowed intention that his Martians should come across as individuals rather than a series of interchangeable drones like the Daleks or Cybermen. Hidden under Varga’s latex and fibreglass, Bernard Bresslaw makes a spirited effort to find and portray Varga’s unique and troubled soul, but the necessary raw material simply isn’t there in the script. The Ice Warriors’ place in the upper echelon of Doctor Who monsters will be earned through later encounters, chiefly thanks to actor Alan Bennion – the man behind thrice an Ice Lord – who delivers one of Doctor Who’s transcendent monster performances, right up there with Michael Wisher’s Davros.

The Ice Warriors are hissing about from Part Two onwards, but sadly our enjoyment of their company is severely limited by the fact that they share almost all their scenes with Victoria, who is, by a long chalk, the most disagreeably shrill of the Doctor’s many companions. When Varga holds his sonic cannon to Victoria’s head, promising: “Sss – I will burst your brain with noise – Sss”, one’s dark half thrills to the thought. Sadly, there’s no hiding from the fact that if anyone is going to burst a brain with noise today, the smart money has to be on Victoria.

The Ice Warriors crashes itself to a standstill when the Doctor, Clent and his team leap to the conclusion that there might be a spaceship hidden in the glacier with an engine that might explode if the Ioniser is used near it. It really is the most awe-inspiring bit of scripting flounce, as they skip from “There’s a man in the ice!” to “There’ll be five decades of nuclear fallout!” in about 15 seconds flat. Without a single fact available, Clent and company talk up a brilliant excuse for inaction, and three episodes then pass with nothing much happening at all. Everyone bickers interminably, until eventually even Varga asks his lieutenant: “Why are they – sss – so interested in our engines?” But just as you’re shouting back at the screen “We’re not! We’re really not!”, the Ice Warriors dispiritingly start to wonder what kind of power supply the humans might have. As everyone ponders the possibilities of each other’s nuclear reactors, Clent’s computer insists that any action that might be construed as interesting or dramatic should be avoided at all costs. Clent readily agrees, so Varga takes the initiative and freely wanders into Britannicus Base with his men. It’s then that he issues the least scary command ever given by a Doctor Who monster: “Run down that machine as quickly as is safely possible. Sss.” As catchphrases go, it definitely lacks the snap of “Exterminate”.

In the end, despite all the wringing of hands and fretting about engines and reactors and computers, Penley steps up and, encouraged by the Doctor, fires the Ioniser on full power at the Ice Warrior ship and blows them all to kingdom come. The message of the piece proves to be: sometimes you’ve just got to go with your instincts and hang the consequences. “Only a small explosion!” reports Miss Garrett. “We’re safe!” And so, after all that worry, there was never any danger at all. The Doctor quietly slips away, and The Ice Warriors, after stringing us along with six episodes of shaggy dog story, immediately shuts itself down in embarrassment. Sadly, we don’t get to see Clent finally confess his love for Penley and melt into his manly embrace like a freshly ionised glacier. But they surely married in the spring.

DVD extras

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icewarriors_610With Parts Two and Three of The Ice Warriors having been tragically misplaced – and likely in a pretty permanent sort of way – their surviving soundtracks have been matched on this DVD to specially commissioned animation. Now, your reviewer must admit to feeling perplexed as to why cartoons have come to be seen as a natural way to present missing episodes – especially here, where a full set of telesnaps exist and DVD is the perfect medium to present them correctly timed to the audio. However, this animation is a huge improvement upon that presented on the recent Reign of Terror DVD. The likenesses are strong and captured in crisp and simple lines, though quite why the Doctor has been given a darkening five-o’clock shadow, in the manner of Homer Simpson, is a mystery. It’s like he’s just rolled in from the boozer. (Happily, Leader Clent’s toupee is altogether more convincing in animated form.) The characters feel subtly alive, rather than dead-eyed and uncanny, thanks to the clever way their eyes seem to keep their point of focus even as they turn their heads. It all works best when the action is in mid-shot, and luckily that’s an arrangement favoured by the majority of Doctor Who’s screen time between 1963 and 1989, and certainly in as talky a piece as The Ice Warriors. Wider bodily movement feels less natural – it’s a little too loose-limbed, as if elbows and knees are jointed with brass fasteners – but then again, one can only feel sympathy with the animator tasked with bringing vérité to Leader Clent’s uptight waddle.

A supporting documentary, Beneath the Ice, offers an insight into the animation process from producer Chris Chapman and members of his team. It’s clearly a pre-emptive strike against the major criticisms levelled at the Reign of Terror’s animation, although it’s polite enough to not mention that project by name. “The challenge is to limit ourselves to what was possible at the time,” says Chapman, drawing out attention to the specifics of shots and the timing of cuts detailed in The Ice Warriors’ camera script. This devotion to accuracy is entirely laudable. And how far off, one wonders, is our first entirely photo-realistic recreation of a missing episode, cast and performed by computer-generated actors? Surely the necessary processing power and algorithms are only – what? – five to ten years from our grasp? These missing instalments of The Ice Warriors, along with all the rest, will be made again before too long. In fact, the computers will likely be too clever, and many hours of human effort will be required to make the episodes look precisely bad enough.

p014y36fSonny Caldinez – who played balloon-headed Ice Warrior cohort Turoc – is the star of the production documentary, Cold Fusion. He vividly conveys the small agonies of life as a Martian. “Whoopee-doopee-doo!” is apparently the sound he made when he fell over, and the costume sliced upwards into his crotch – although one suspects that’s a polite rephrasing of his actual words. Caldinez is also to be found on the commentary to the surviving episodes alongside Frazer Hines (Jamie), Deborah Watling (Victoria) and grams operator Pat Heigham – whose job it was to play sound effects into the studio during recording. It’s not the most edifying of chats, but it’s kept trundling along thanks to the skills of moderator Toby Hadoke. Responding to the ecological issues in The Ice Warriors, resolute climate change sceptic Hines argues that, should the icecaps melt due to global warming, the hot sun will also turn the water into steam, “so the melting ice will just make up for the water we lose as steam.” Where he thinks that steam might be going is anyone’s guess. But then, the episodes Hines is watching are no less of a muddle. Even the Doctor gets confused, boldly claiming at one point that plants produce carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. For that he deserves a rap on the knuckles with Ian Chesterton’s springiest ruler.

The 1967/68 Blue Peter ‘Design a Monster’ competition is a real treat from the archives. Before the winners are revealed, John Noakes is sternly chastising. “We were quite disappointed that some of the entries were copied,” he huffs. That’s rich! You can hardly blame the kids. Doctor Who itself wasn’t exactly fizzing with fresh ideas at the time. The Ice Warriors was the third story in a row with an icy/snowy setting, and the creatures’ reptile form was an eleventh-hour redesign from Brian Hayles’ original idea of a cyborg soldier: a sort of ‘cyber’ ‘man’, if you will. The panicked change came so late in the day that bewildering references to ‘electrical connections’ and ‘tin hats’ still muddle the broadcast script; and someone really should have fixed that. Happily, Noakes’s co-presenter Peter Purves proves less minty, and hints that the winning Blue Peter monsters might even appear on Doctor Who itself. While that promise proved empty, the three finalists still have more surviving screen time – thanks to this clip – than either the Macra or the Chameleons, so that’s a kind of immortality. And as the credits roll, one is left to ponder who would win in a scrap between the Steel Octopus (fronds, feathers, lovely lips), the Hypnotron (a forlorn, shuffling eyeball), and Aquaman (who, with those cankles, really shouldn’t wear Bermuda shorts); but we can never know for sure. You’d hope for it to be settled in a Big Finish audio, if only any of the buggers could talk.

Doctor Who: The Legacy Collection

17 Feb

A review for Doctor Who Magazine, 2013

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DISC ONE

vlcsnap-2012-08-13-11h19m55s137Many have attempted to complete Shada. But it can never be completed in any meaningful way. That’s because we can never know, for sure, what happens to Skagra’s hat. Similarly, many have pondered whether Shada might have stood as one of Doctor Who’s great, defining adventures. Again, we can never answer that question with any confidence. That’s because we simply don’t know what happens to Skagra’s hat.

First, though, we need to fill in the backstory for any newcomers out there. In 1979, Shada – a wannabe six-part Doctor Who adventure – was abandoned due to industrial action at the BBC, with only its location scenes and one-third of its studio work in the can. In the 1980s, a hooky video of the completed material did the rounds of fandom, copied and re-copied until its contents dissolved into a hissing smear. Lost scenes were summarised in screens of strobing text output from an early home computer. It was a wondrous thing to behold. Then 1992 brought an official BBC Video, the gaps filled with earnest narration from a Tom Baker battling hypnosis by autocue. It’s this version which has been dragged from the brink of obsolescence and cannily tarted up to form the lead feature of this DVD box set. A decade on, 2003 gave us a spectacularly recast BBC Online/Big Finish animated audio adaptation, also available here as a generous extra. And last year brought Gareth Roberts’ superb novelisation, which enriches and improves upon the source material immeasurably. In the future we can look forward to Shada: The Collectible Card Game, and Shada: The Interpretive Dance Experience, performed twice daily in a shopping centre near you. Shada will just keep on coming. And that’s because, far from being cut short, it has secured its place as the story that will never end.

Skagra is the villain of Shada. It’s a suitably unlovely name for an unlovely sneer of a man. Few characters in Doctor Who have ever looked more intrinsically cruel. His babyish face is fringed with curls, but his features are sharp, like a putto; a vengeful cherub. He has a rip of a scar down his forehead and right cheek. The cause of this scar is, with uncommon restraint for Doctor Who, never revealed, but Skagra wears it with pride. He is clearly every inch the scoundrel, from the hem of his long white cape to the brim of his huge white hat.

It’s a sun hat, of sorts; the kind you might have found Jackie Onassis sheltering beneath on a weekend at the Hamptons. For added pizazz, there’s a spattered constellation of sequins. It’s an uncompromising fashion statement; and Skagra, marvellously, doesn’t give a damn what we think about it. When we first see him in present-day Cambridge, he turns to camera and smirks right back at us. “Yeah?” he’s saying. “What of it?” Truly, he is a man to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, all this boiling self-belief can do nothing to distract us from the fact that he looks absolutely bloody ridiculous.

Skagra has come to Cambridge from space, in search of a leather-bound Time Lord plot device: ‘The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey’. He speaks with a precise, clipped voice, like a Nazi from a Sherlock Holmes movie. It’s a measured performance from actor Christopher Neame, who knows he has to take the character a long way up, and then a long way down, from here. “I have come…” he tells Time Lord-in-hiding Professor Chronotis “…for the bok.” He pronounces the word ‘book’ in just the way a chicken might. “Give me. The bok.” And Skagra gets his bok eventually – thanks to rank stupidity on the part of the Doctor, who’s pelting about Cambridge on a bicycle – after which he takes Romana prisoner and steals the TARDIS. At this point, following a brief dalliance with polyester trousers, Skagra’s back in his hat. He’s clearly very attached to it.

And there’s the problem. Due to the structure of the recording schedule, Neame only recorded one other scene as Skagra before the plug was pulled on Shada. It’s his final moment in the story, by which point he’s a ranting, twitching maniac, driven to distraction – round the bend and loop-the-loop – by the Doctor, who becomes the Inspector Clouseau to Skagra’s Commissioner Dreyfus. And here’s the thing: by this point, Skagra’s not wearing the hat. So when does he lose it? Or, more to the point: for how long would he have worn it? Just how many unrecorded scenes might that hat have stolen? We will never know.

Judging by the script, all the best missing scenes of Shada would have featured Skagra. That calm, confident theft of the TARDIS would have been shocking in the extreme. How rare is it that we see someone other than the Doctor at the controls of his ship, let alone a villain? And though Skagra lacks the charm of the best of the Doctor’s rivals, he roundly outclasses the Master and the like in terms of ambition. Skagra’s plan to become “the Universal mind” – a single intelligence displacing every other consciousness in creation – is an absolute belter of a wheeze, and surely one of Doctor Who’s top five most imaginative evil schemes. Two of the others also come with Douglas Adams’ name on their scripts, but Shada lacks the cosy, cheering upholstery of The Pirate Planet and City of Death – there’s no robot parrot or multiple Mona Lisas – and instead looks toward a colder, higher place in the grand scheme of things. In what might well have been Shada’s most striking scene, Skagra outlines his philosophy to Romana: “Billions of atoms spinning at random,” he says of the Universe. “Expanding energy, running down – achieving nothing. Entropy! But what is the one thing that stands against entropy, against random decay?” And here Skagra would have paused for effect before answering his own question. “Life!

It’s a great irony that, the following year, incoming script editor Christopher H Bidmead would claim to be restoring scientific rigour to a Doctor Who that had become too whimsical. He would give us Logopolis; another story about how the exercise of the mind, the power of rational thought, will be the only way to save the Universe from entropic decay, from running down to nothing. But who would have played this theme better in their season finale: Adams or Bidmead? Well, there’s the rub. Skagra’s big speech about the ultimate destiny of existence is all well and good, but it might have been fatally undermined if delivered while looking like Joan Collins dressed to impress the paparazzi.

But let’s put the unseen and the unknown to one side for a moment, and ponder some of Shada’s more familiar pleasures. The trick – as with most things in life – is to not let the familiarity diminish the joy. The revelation that Professor Chronotis’s Cambridge rooms are a secret TARDIS, for example, is a total blinder. And that first appearance by Skagra on the bridge over the river Cam is a brilliant bit of scripting, as we’ve only just seen him draining brains somewhere and somewhen in outer space. His look-to-camera is really intended to say: “Yes, I’m here too! Good, isn’t it?” It’s certainly some cocksure storytelling, as the Doctor and Romana float blithely beneath in an out-of-control punt.

The punting sequence was, of course, co-opted for use in The Five Doctors, and so is doubly familiar. We know it so well we could recite it as a catechism. The leaves, the colours. May Week’s in June. So was the TARDIS. Definitely Newton. The duck that laughs “waak! waak! waak!” along with Lalla Ward and Tom Baker’s erudite banter. The scene is a goosebumpy breath on the back of our necks, enough to make our fan gene shiver to attention. And here, cleaned up for DVD, and in its proper context, it looks achingly beautiful. The leafiness of those leaves, the colour of those colours. It’s a perfect moment of Doctor Who, caught in a timeless bubble of eternal sunshine.

And it’s perfect for a box set celebrating the legacy of Doctor Who, here on the cusp of anniversary year. For, with this version of Shada, nostalgia settles upon us in layers, because it comes to us from so many different times at once. It comes via The Five Doctors in 1983. It comes from Tom Baker’s wonderfully batty museum-set introduction to the 1992 video, where he wittily re-enters Doctor Who from the exit. “I was irresistible in those days!” he says, which is true enough, but he’s no less irresistible in his recalling of it. In addition, this Shada was put together by 80s producer John Nathan-Turner – and it was a hard-fought labour of love, we must remember – who invited one of his favourite musicians, Keff McCulloch, to provide a score, and so our senses are also jabbed by the flatulent synthesizers of the Sylvester McCoy era. Shada is probably the composer’s most agreeable work for Doctor Who; but then, asking this viewer to name Keff McCulloch’s most enjoyable soundtrack is like asking him to name his most enjoyable toothache.

We now also have a whole new context granted to the story by Doctor Who’s reaffirmed mainstream success. What’s most striking, looking at Shada afresh, is how modern it all is. It’s remarkably assured in the way it plays with familiar situations. For example, we’re tickled by being shown the TARDIS in Chronotis’s room some time before we see the Doctor. Later, when de facto companion Chris Parsons is sent into the ship in search of a first aid kit, the wit is not so much in Romana’s lengthy directions, but in the way actor Daniel Hill exits the police box out of breath, having run all the way back. This playfulness trusts to our intelligence, and is much how Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat might flatter us.

Of course, with two and a half hours to fill, there’s more time for characters to talk. They may do that weird, old fashioned thing of sitting down when they do it, but it’s still recognisably the continuing rolling banter of today’s Doctor Who. The Doctor and Romana’s extended chat with Chronotis is so carefully rehearsed by the cast as to be almost sitcom. A favourite moment is when the Professor is asked why he called the Doctor to Cambridge. “It’s a delicate matter,” says Chronotis, and Romana respectfully looks away, as if the problem might be something only to be discussed between Time Lads. She imagines, maybe, that the Professor wants to show the Doctor a worrisome rash he’s found around his old, y’know, Eye of Harmony.

But Tom Baker looks tired. Around this time, by his own account, our star was burning the candle at both ends while taking a blowtorch to the middle. Or perhaps it’s the same ill-health that would reportedly dog his next and final series as the Doctor, rendering it a muted postscript to his glittering reign. Some of his most Doctor-ish lines don’t quite land with their usual seemingly effortless, perfect placement. But perhaps he would have rallied had production continued – and then, what other great moments of Doctor Who might we have lost?

Well… Quite possibly Doctor Who’s most outrageous climax of all time. And, as ever, it all comes back to that hat.

It’s the big Part Six showdown. On one side of Skagra’s bright yellow command centre, we have the man himself, quite possibly glowering from beneath a large sequined brim. On the other side is the Doctor, who has done everything in his power to out-hat his enemy. The helmet that the Doctor would have built to deflect Skagra’s mind power is described in the script as “having a jagged piece of table attached to it”. Imagine, then, the kind of understated performance we’d have got from a Season Seventeen Tom Baker, on the last day of term, with a piece of table on his head. But even that’s not the half of it. The hat that was actually built is described in the production subtitles of this DVD as having “a rotating drum, covered in flashing lights”. As the Doctor himself would have commented: “With this on my head, it won’t matter whether it works or not. They’ll all be paralysed laughing at me.” And so, it’s sequins versus lights. Evil Quentin Crisp versus a one-man walking wedding disco. As battles go, it’s titfer tat. It would have been perfectly glorious. Or exquisitely embarrassing.

Of course, this is Doctor Who; where, much like Skagra’s hat, it’s quite possible to be both at same time. But the unique thrill of Shada is that we can never, ever know for sure. And – for a series that we have all sliced and diced and roundly ranked and rated to six decimal places, several times over – that uncertainty, that mystery, is perhaps the most valuable thing of all.

DISC TWO

urlThere are many kinds of legacy. And Shada comes with no end of them, as some fine DVD extras remind us.

A first-class set of ‘info text’ production subtitles runs alongside the main feature. It is a consummate piece of storytelling in itself, with the sad story of Shada’s demise – at 11.45am on Friday 30 November 1979 – intercut with a wealth of wonderful trivia. We’re told that Tom Baker was busy in the week before location filming helping to launch a new comic. And so, we can infer, that while the Doctor is pursued on his bike through Cambridge by Skagra’s ‘mind sphere’ in Part Two, he cycles past shops in which the first issue of the very magazine you are holding would have been on sale. There’s a legacy for you.

A wistful production documentary takes members of the cast and crew back to Cambridge, while Baker comments from the bucolic bliss of a walk in the woods with his ebullient lurcher, Poppy. It’s a lovely programme as far as it goes, but sadly stunted in its ambition. Could not more effort have been made into giving some sense of the unmade Shada? Designs exist for Skagra’s command ship and for the titular prison planet of the Time Lords, so wouldn’t this have been the perfect occasion to revive the DVD range’s former obsession with 3D computer modelling of old sets? Couldn’t we have finally had a little poke around Shada? We could have opened cell doors like an advent calendar until a Zygon popped out.

The cast and production team talk about how bonded the crew of Shada became during filming. Actor Daniel Hill – surely a shoo-in for the lead role in Steven Moffat: The Motion Picture – tells us of how he fell in love with production assistant Olivia Bazalgette. They went on to marry, and now have three children together. Now there’s a legacy for you.

(However, Shada’s finest legacy – while we’re on the subject – is to be found elsewhere. For that, you need to seek out Lalla Ward’s talking book version of Gareth Roberts’ novelisation. It is, for sure, the very best way to enjoy Shada. Lalla gives her all playing Skagra’s spaceship; a female artificial intelligence who is persuaded by the Doctor to reprogram herself, and is thoroughly seduced by his Time Lord touch. “Ooh!” says Lalla. “Ooh. Ooooh! That hit the spot, Doctor.” And when you stop to think about who is taking about whom, and what they were up to at the time Shada was in production, you perceive that there really is no end to the madness.)

Strike! Strike! is a first-class documentary looking at the effect of BBC union action on Doctor Who, for good or ill, down the years. It’s a sobering reminder of how lucky we were that Warhead – the serial planned to end Season 20 but abandoned due to strike action – was revived for Season 21 as Resurrection of the Daleks. Can you imagine how many half-baked fan productions of that we would have had to sit through? Meanwhile, former Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures script editor Gary Russell recalls how, back when he worked in a more junior capacity at the Beeb in the 1980s, the management would stamp a little picture of a Christmas tree on the staff files of any likely troublemakers. Russell expresses pride at the fact his file came with two Christmas trees. It’s likely that this is because he was seen as a Trotskyite rabble-rouser – the Roj Blake of the BBC press office – but more enquiring minds might wonder if it was just because of his unreconstructed, unconscionable views on the subject of City of Death.

Watching the documentary Being A Girl must be the closest one can get in this world to experiencing Sutekh’s ultimate doom after the Doctor nobbled his time-space corridor. The start and end of the programme telescope away to infinity, until it feels like one has somehow always been watching it. Its stated objective is to explore the role of women in Doctor Who; their empowerment or otherwise. A female production team would have been a nice idea for a project like this, but instead just two contributors – DWM’s Time Team’s Emma Price and broadcaster Samira Ahmed – are expected to carry the whole thing, fending off a series of eye-crossingly long-winded questions as best they can. Ahmed, discussing the earliest roles for women in Doctor Who over some footage of Barbara Wright, says: “The women in it are kind of whiny, and they’re kind of high-pitched in their voices. And they’re kind of going round like Margaret Thatcher… With their kind of set hair, and sort of corsets.” As statements go, it almost fulfils the 1963 brief for Doctor Who itself; reaching forwards in time, backwards in time, and kind of sideways into a parallel dimension where it might sort of make the slightest sense at all.

DISC THREE

url-1The other star feature of this box set, the documentary More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS, would have been within its rights to harangue its agent for top billing. It’s one of the crown jewels of the BBC Video and DVD range, and simply a glorious job of work from director Kevin Davies and his team.

An extended version of a programme originally made for BBC One to celebrate Doctor Who’s first three decades, More Than 30 Years piles joy upon joy, pleasure upon pleasure. Hundreds of skilfully curated archive clips are wrapped up with witty star interviews and then tied with a wonderful ribbon of specially-shot drama, featuring the perilous adventures of an imaginative young Doctor Who fan and a hit parade of old monsters. And now, in 2013, with the documentary itself being 20 years old, it’s nostalgia squared.

“Squeezed between the football results and the Tellygoons, a legend was born.” “An essential belief in the ‘rightness’ of things.” “A real popped-up engine.” “The colour for monsters is gween.” “I screamed my way out of the show.” These are just a few of the phrases that have earned their place in the Doctor Who book of quotations along with any of the Doctor’s own most memorable quips. But this viewer’s favourite will always be from a conversation about 1960s movie Daleks between actresses Jennie Linden and Roberta Tovey. “They shot foam, didn’t they?” recalls Linden, aka Big Screen Barbara. “Fire extinguishers,” corrects Big Screen Susan, politely enough, recalling the belching blasts of carbon dioxide vapour. “Yes. That’s the word I was looking for…” replies Babs. “Foam.” Whatever the mundane truth of the matter, she’s bloody well going to have the last word.

Thanks to this DVD, it’s a pleasure to see again so many who have since passed, looking so full of vim and vigour, piss and vinegar. And there are many others looking so wonderfully young. In his trademark polo neck, Terrance Dicks could be leaning out of the back flap of a WH Allen Doctor Who novelisation. Nicola Bryant, however, somehow looks exactly the same in 1993 as she does today. Here, she appears in her best-ever scene with her Doctor, Colin Baker, making warm and witty repartee as a troop of Cyberman follow them down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. If they’d been allowed to play Peri and the Doctor like this, without the dead hand of script editor Eric Saward steering their doomed ship, then the history of Doctor Who would have been very different indeed.

But More Than 30 Years’ finest moment comes with its great, final coup de théâtre, as the young boy we’ve been following through the film walks up to the TARDIS, looks back over his shoulder in a seeming moment of doubt, but then smiles and pushes open the door. And then… Oh, and then… For the first time ever, the camera tracks into the control room in what appears to a single, sweeping shot. Accompanied by Mark Ayres’ elegiac music, it’s pure magic, and one of Doctor Who’s most glorious moments. It’s taken another two decades – until our recent Christmas special in fact – for the series itself to deliver a scene for the TARDIS with anything like the same emotional wallop.

More Than 30 Years alone makes this box set an essential purchase. May we dream that the BBC might produce anything half as good to mark the 50th anniversary. However, in an appalling oversight, given the significance of this programme, there’s no commentary from Davies, Ayres or any of the team. There’s a host of tall tales to be told from behind the scenes. How could there not be? One day in TV Centre alone brought together Toyah Willcox, Mike Gatting, Jennie Linden, Roberta Tovey, Roy Castle, Ian Levine and the Emperor Dalek all in a single studio.

Finally, this third disc is rounded out with a few more orphan DVD extras that have drifted in to fill out this already packed release.

Nicholas Courtney Remembered is the least of them; a shoddy tribute to our late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, based around a few minutes of interview with a clearly very unwell Courtney. The interview couldn’t be completed, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. It should have been abandoned – with regret, of course – but has instead been stitched into this ghastly Frankenstein’s monster of a programme. A tribute compiled purely from archive material, and memories of Courtney’s colleagues, would have been far more appropriate.

One last highlight is Those Deadly Divas, which – as the title alone suggests – does more to celebrate the emancipation of women in Doctor Who than Disc Two’s Being A Girl. It appears to have been on the shelf at 2entertain for some years – probably because of the poor sound quality, having seemingly been recorded in a nightclub toilet.

Kate O’Mara, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Camille Coduri discuss some totemic Doctor Who villainesses. The fun is that they’ve actually watched the episodes in question. There’s a special joy to hearing Jackie Tyler discussing Silver Nemesis in some detail, or the Rani expressing envy of the potent sexuality of Captain Wrack. Shada novelist and TV writer Gareth Roberts entertains with typically droll asides, while former DWM editor Clayton Hickman floats the idea that, in creating Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Doctor Who character – Army of Ghosts’ flamboyant Torchwood boss Yvonne Hartman – writer Russell T Davies was giving us a female version of himself. It’s a persuasive theory, but it only raises another question: has Steven Moffat also written his anima – his suppressed feminine unconscious – into the series?

Hmm… Scots firebrand Amelia Pond, you say? Don’t be silly. It has to be Madame Kovarian. She gets things done. She favours season finales. She’s got the hairdo. If Daniel Hill’s not available for The Moffat Movie, then surely Frances Barber’s a cert.

The Ambassadors of Death

2 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

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dvd-ambasadors‘Exile’ is too grand a description for the sentence handed down to the Doctor at the end of his original trial. Aside from changing his face – which admittedly could be argued to be a form of capital punishment – all the Time Lords really do is wheelclamp the Doctor’s ship and so deny him access to his favourite of his usual four dimensions. However, while our hero can no longer trip through time, his new incarnation still thrusts out unceasingly in every remaining direction. The first thing he does is to take a vehicle without the owner’s consent – a crime for which he has form, to say the least – after which he barely sits still for a moment. And in the seven-episode adventures that dominate his first year on Earth, we see him explore, in turn, all three dimensions still available to him. To meet the Silurians, he plunges down into the ground. Later, he’ll shimmy sideways into a parallel reality. And this week – to meet the Ambassadors of Death – he rockets straight up into the sky.

These three seven-parters are some of the most measured and mature Doctor Who you can find for your money, although there’s no denying that Ambassadors is the least of them. In being obliged to do more than merely vamp their way to a deferred climax, these longer-than-usual adventures each bridge, like a sonata, to a middle development section that takes us somewhere new; into a darker, minor key. Think of The Silurians and Inferno, with their sidesteps into plague and fiery apocalypse. Ambassadors flips the form. Much of the story is as gloomy and grounded as Doctor Who gets. But in its central digression, it’s all spaceships, hypnosis, trippy Chromakey and a wafty alien who means well but is tragically misunderstood. At this point, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks must have shared a look of mutual understanding. The counterpoint for Ambassadors goes on to become the major repeating refrain for the rest of the Third Doctor’s era.

We have to be careful about describing any Doctor Who adventure as realistic, especially if it tells the story of manned missions to Mars launched from Hampshire in the depths of winter, controlled by a staff roughly the size of that you’d find in a Tesco Metro. But Ambassadors was imagined as taking place a good decade after the time it was made; and in 1970, the idea of delivering an Englishman to Mars would not have seemed so wildly optimistic. Sadly, the world has rather let us down on that score, but the vision of the day-after-tomorrow offered by this adventure remains more readily believable than the T-Mat network, the Gravitron or UNIT’s flying flagship Valiant. Indeed, Ambassadors would prove plausible in an immediate and unique way. On the 13th of April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded on board the service module of Apollo 13, the USA’s third manned mission to the moon. The world held its breath as Commander James Lovell and his crew fought to improvise a new air filtration system and bring the command capsule safely back to Earth. Episode 5 of The Ambassadors of Death, broadcast five days later, saw the Doctor blast off into space, and to his seemingly inevitable death in a sabotaged capsule. These days, it would be surely pulled from the schedule for too closely mirroring a real-life tragedy. It’s a peculiar tribute to Ambassadors’ spirited struggle for realism; a struggle that gives this story a special charm, and makes it a refreshing diversion from Doctor Who’s more familiar forays into the fantastic.

This struggle for realism isn’t shared by every aspect of the production to quite the same degree, however. Take British Space Command for example, where controller Ralph Cornish is in charge of the Recovery 7 mission, dispatched to rescue the crew of the ill-fated Mars Probe 7. Cornish is played by Ronald Allen, who become better known in the 70s as Crossroads’ dishy David Hunter; a performance that would go on to inspire the character of Mr Clifford in Victoria Wood’s tribute to TV melodrama, Acorn Antiques. And so it is that one can’t help but relish a retrospective whiff of Mr Clifford about Mr Cornish (“Did you get bored of Geneva, Brigadier? Or did Geneva get bored of you?”). While issuing commands, Allen keeps his eyes fixed on some distant horizon, as if in steadfast expectation of a bus that’s never going to come. Later in the story, when choosing fuel for his rocket, he has to say: “What about reducing the G by mixing K and M3?” and Allen is so endearingly earnest, we truly believe he’s formulating the next giant leap for mankind. Somewhat less convincing is the mission’s chief scientist, Dr Bruno Taltalian, who comes with an outrrrageous Franche eggsant and facial hair so evidently false that when he first removes his glasses you expect his beard to go with them.

TheAmbassadorsofDeath1-7avi_0001704The Doctor is watching the Recovery 7 mission on TV at UNIT HQ. He’s ripped out the TARDIS’s control console for a good tinker in his laboratory. Or at least we assume this is the case. The more whimsical might note that there’s nothing to say that this isn’t a new design of the TARDIS control room. With its flock wallpaper, stained glass and Meissen porcelain, it has a Jules Verne, fin de siècle decadence that rather suits our time traveller. It’s certainly a more homely environment for the Doctor than the TARDIS’s current TV incarnation, which looks like the inside of a migraine. Also offering a new look is his assistant Liz Shaw, who this week is exhibiting a wig of such extravagant proportion she could surely be slingshot head first into the offside of the Hoover Dam and walk away unscathed. Without doubt, Liz is the most glamorous research scientist ever to have graced the corridors of Doctor Who. One of her five degrees from Cambridge must have been in Applied Funky Fashion. After she’s kidnapped later in the story, the Brigadier reports: “I’ve issued Miss Shaw’s description to every police force in the country.” That must have been some conversation. “What’s that? Any distinguishing features? Well. A huge white hat. Miniskirt. Knee-high white boots… Yes, like Yoko Ono on her wedding day. Last seen in the sort of car you find the clowns driving at the circus. Oh, and she can look surprisingly mannish from a distance. And did I mention the big ginger wig? Hello? Are you still there?”

A screeching transmission from Mars Probe 7 brings the Doctor to Space Command and straight into the story’s best scene – well, its best non-action scene – as the Doctor insists that the signal is a coded message, and bullies Cornish through to the logical conclusion that a second signal must be a reply from Earth. The Doctor is so wildly pompous you want to stand up and cheer, and the Brigadier gets to play what will become Jo Grant’s role, hinting to the Doctor that he might get further by at least feigning some manners and respect for the local hierarchy. Set against the resolutely modernist backdrop of the control room, the Doctor seems positively reactionary. “I never did trust those things!” he huffs about Taltalian’s computer. And when the Frenchman – revealed to be a double agent – demands a vital data reel, the Doctor even seems to call upon supernatural powers, as the tape vanishes before our very eyes. “Zis is no time fer conjerin’ tricks,” insists Taltalian, and you can’t help but agree. “That was simply transmigration of object,” smarms the Doctor. “There’s a great deal of difference between that and real science, you know.” It’s one small moment, but so contrary to the spirit of Doctor Who that it makes you want to climb into your television set, crawl back 40 years, and give everyone involved a firm slap about the face with a stiff halibut. What’s especially galling is that Episode 1 has already offered a plausible set-up for this tomfoolery, thanks to a faulty TARDIS component which has the Doctor and Liz vanishing and reappearing in exactly the same way. Couldn’t the Doctor have had that in his pocket?

Perhaps this was a detail lost in the serial’s troubled journey from story to screen. The scripts for Ambassadors are the work of four writers – the credited David Whitaker, plus Malcolm Hulke, script editor Terrance Dicks and his assistant Trevor Ray. It’s thanks to Dicks in particular that the thing coheres at all, but due to this troubled development Ambassadors never quite comes into focus, never quite builds a momentum. But while it fails to make the most of its potential, it certainly delivers its share of kinetic energy, principally in three wonderful action sequences cooked up by director Michael Ferguson and Derek Ware’s stunt crew Havoc.

In Episode 1, UNIT tracks the source of the transmission to Mars Probe 7 to an abandoned warehouse. The baddies, though briefed not to kill anyone, come out all guns blazing, and soon bodies are crashing through tea chests as stuntmen boldly trampoline hither and yon. Somewhere in the Home Counties must be found the Tomb of the Unknown UNIT Soldier; a massive cenotaph topped by a simple relief of Pat Gorman. Meanwhile, as bullets ricochet around the Brigadier, he falls into a kind of blood frenzy, blasting away in all directions, before it all ends in a wonderfully butch and sweaty stand-off. This probably wasn’t the evening when the Brigadier went home, bounced daughter Kate on his knee and told her his hippy idea about letting the science lead the military.

There’s more action, and better, in Episode 2. Recovery 7 has crashed back to Earth – supposedly with the rescued astronauts aboard – but the villains hijack the UNIT convoy taking the capsule back to Space Command. A helicopter swoops in. Smoke bombs boom and belch. Riders are thrown from motorbikes as they slew sideways in the mud. A soldier briefly clings to one of the skids of the chopper and, while in flight, tries to wrench open the door – but then drops and tumbles down a ravine. In our modern era, Doctor Who, with generous budgets and all the artistry and processing power of The Mill, delivers many a thrilling action sequence. But we still know green screen when we see it – in 2012, just as in 1970 – and so it is that no one else, to this day, has managed to convey the same sense of true and present danger as Havoc at their most fearless. In Episode 3, Liz Shaw is chased pell-mell across a rugby pitch by two heavies, and then, played at key moments by stuntman Roy Scamell, along a weir. For the cliffhanger, Liz tumbles to her seeming-certain doom in the torrent of water below. It all looks mind-bogglingly dangerous, and we shall never see its like again. It’s also the moment when Liz Shaw proves herself a premier league assistant; by keeping her hat firmly jammed on her head throughout, and for giving one of her pursuers a proper wallop of a backhander.

But for all that Ambassadors enjoys getting out and about, it certainly chooses some gloomy terrain. It’s all mist and mud, slurry pit and slag heap. In one chilling scene, two grey-faced corpses are taken to a concrete works, dragged from the back of a van and slowly buried under a landslide of mixed aggregates. However, despite all this gritty action, even by Episode 4 there’s barely been enough plot to fill an egg cup, and what there is seems to pull in every possible direction. The villain of the piece is revealed to be the cold fish General Carrington, who is at times underplayed almost to nothing by John Abineri, which is what makes him so forgettable. The General, we learn, was part of the Mars Probe 6 mission – presumably to investigate the effect of zero gravity upon toupee tape – and saw his crewmate killed by aliens. Exactly how the cause of this death was explained away is anyone’s guess; certainly UNIT knows nothing about it.

originalCarrington has gone on to kidnap three alien ambassadors as part of a plan to provoke Earth into launching a pre-emptive strike against what he believes to be possible invaders, but who the Doctor knows to be essentially benign. Carrington’s chief lackey is Reegan – a more engaging performance from William Dysart – whose principal ambition seems to be to use the alien ambassadors as history’s most high-maintenance team of bank robbers. Quite why Reegan and Carrington cart the space-suited beings back and forth in a van just to commit the odd murder is entirely unfathomable, but it does give us the story’s signature visual moment as one of the ambassadors stalks towards us out of the low evening sun, the light flaring and spotting across his sinister silhouette. Michael Ferguson had pulled the same trick with an Ice Warrior on Hampstead Heath a year earlier, but here he nails it. It’s as beautifully contrived a shot as any you’ll find in the whole history of Doctor Who.

The disconnection of motive and action is, again, the result of the fractured writing process. It’s also why time seems to move at different speeds in different places. At one point, Liz escapes her captors merely to run straight into Bruno Taltalian, who has just appeared in the previous scene, set many miles away. But here he is in a car, suddenly dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and with nary a hint of a French accent.

When the end comes, it comes in a rush, and not with a bang but a whimper. Carrington is poised to unveil his aliens to the world, until the Doctor and UNIT pile in to stop him, and then the General simply hands over his gun and submits himself for arrest. His motivation turns out to be madness brought on by extreme xenophobia – or possibly vice versa – and though this might explain his wildly illogical scheme, it’s not exactly satisfying. From the aliens themselves we don’t hear another peep. And although our hero shows suitably Doctorish compassion toward Carrington, even he seems entirely indifferent as to what might happen next, and casually saunters off the side of the set.

This lack of engagement with the emotions of its characters is why only the swagger and flash of  Ambassadors tends to linger in the memory. Or perhaps it’s the fact that so much of the story features hopeless conspirators waving guns and shouting things like: “I need you to raid a number of isotope stores!”

Ambassadors is a fundamentally schizophrenic adventure. With its guns and gangsters on one side, and rocket ships and exploding briefcases on the other, it can’t seem to decide if wants to be The Ipcress File or Joe 90. But, in much the same way as The Mind Robber, The Happiness Patrol, Love & Monsters, or any of our other favourite eccentrics, The Ambassadors of Death pushes at the boundaries of what we might normally expect of Doctor Who, and should always be cherished for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

deathSHIPLINK-1The production documentary, Mars Probe 7: Making the Ambassadors of Death, opens to urgent strings and stock footage of Apollo 13, and seems set to investigate this adventure’s historical context. You’re braced for Dr Matthew Sweet stalking the corridors of the Science Museum in Dr River Song’s spacesuit; but, alas, we are denied that pleasure. Instead, the highlight is footage from a 1970 documentary about Havoc, which, accompanied by new interviews with the boys themselves, delivers a dizzying whirl of masculinity, derring-do and – let’s be frank – unexpected homoeroticism. After a hard day on the Doctor Who set, the Havoc boys would enjoy a right old rave-up. They’d drink together, go dancing together, or merely share a shower and a sauna. Footage from those communal ablutions allows us to carefully assess Derek Ware’s claim that “Roy Scammell has extremely good legs”, and much more besides.

The stuntmen are also the stars of an excellent commentary, where they take centre stage for the action-heavy second episode. We learn that Alan Chuntz – who spent much of the 70s disappearing head first over Jon Pertwee’s left shoulder – also taught kung fu to the Kray twins, had an uncanny resemblance to Charles Aznavour, and drove a London taxi in his spare time. Come to mention it, this section of the commentary, so thick with avuncular Cockney charm, is rather like finding yourself discussing Doctor Who with your cab driver.  “These days, they’re defying the laws of physics with all that CGI, ain’t they?” opines Derek Ware from the driver’s seat, or possibly hanging from the front bumper. You nod in agreement. This is from a man who knows how important it is to respect the laws of physics. They’ll always get you in the end, especially if you’re tumbling head over heels for Jon Pertwee.

Toby Hadoke moderates the commentary with his customary skill and insight. We must be grateful for whatever quirk of scheduling led to it being taped so far ahead of release. The fact that three contributors – Nick Courtney, Caroline John and Peter Halliday – have died since its recording is a sobering reminder of the great blanket of silence that is slowly unrolling over the history of Doctor Who. And then Terrance Dicks refers to The Sarah Jane Adventures in the present tense, and your breath catches once more.

Ultimately, however, the great, great joy of this release is to see The Ambassadors of Death returned to full colour for the first time since 1970. The sharp little cruelty of this story is that while the first episode survives in perfect condition, the rest has had to be recoloured and reassembled from a wide range of lesser material by the Restoration Team and associates. This task required astonishing ingenuity and invention, and untold hours of tedious amendment and correction by hand. The results can never be perfect, and the finished product is, by necessity, a patchwork. In Episode 3, for example, Liz Shaw’s wig gives off a comforting golden glow, like a Belisha beacon on a foggy night. But it’s nothing short of a miracle that there’s colour here at all. And it’s a shocking omission – scandalous, in fact – that those responsible are not credited anywhere on the DVD or the packaging. And so: thank you, Richard Russell, for your dedicated work on colour recovery; thank you, Peter Crocker, for the painstaking effort required in pulling it all together; thank you, Jonathan Wood, for the final grading; and thank you, Mark Ayres, for your exacting sound restoration.

As all these wonderful episodes are restored to us, one is left gawping open-mouthed in awe at quite how bloody clever people can be.

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Day of the Daleks

8 Dec

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2011

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It’s the night of 11 September, Nineteen Seventy-*cough*, and our world teeters on the brink of World War Three. The Chinese are massing on the Russian border, and they’re not there for the duty-free vodka. Fingers are itchy on nuclear triggers, and the only man who can save us is British diplomat Sir Reginald Styles. But Styles has just been found on the floor of his drawing room at Auderly House, jabbering something about having seen a ghost. Clearly, we’re doomed. Send for UNIT!

It’s hard to feel too worried about the threat facing the Earth at the beginning of Day of the Daleks, perhaps because it’s all so peculiar. If the Chinese fail to attend Sir Reginald’s peace conference, we’re told, then our planet is toast; and he’s the only man who can possibly talk them into coming. Exactly why remains a mystery. It can’t be down to Styles’ natural bonhomie, because he’s as charismatic as a cold sore. Perhaps he’s flying to Peking with photographs of Chairman Mao in a compromising position with Little Jimmy Osmond and Nijinsky. And is Styles – upon whose shoulders rests the fate of humanity –getting the support he needs? When the UNIT investigation threatens to delay his mission, the Brigadier promises to arrange a special escort to the airport. What? You mean he didn’t have one already? What if he got stuck in traffic? A little later, a radio announcement plays into UNIT HQ, broadcasting direct from the United Nations Centre for Melodrama in Geneva. “WAR NOW SEEMS INEVITABLE!” it bellows, boosting the morale of all in earshot. The radio operators glance furtively about the room, perhaps choosing who to drag into the stationery cupboard when the four-minute warning comes.

As the global situation worsens, Sir Reginald’s reported ‘ghost’ drops his gun in the environs of Auderly House. As ghosts generally aren’t in the habit of packing heat – well, maybe some ectoplasmic flintlock, certainly not an ultrasonic disintegrator – the Doctor is quick to deduce that he’s not dealing with a spook, but an interloper from the future. He and Jo Grant decide to spend the night at Styles’ house, where they will await another manifestation. If nothing else, it’s the perfect excuse for a booze-up.

As he chugs back Sir Reg’s best Chianti, gorges on Gorgonzola and name-drops Napoleon, we find the Third Doctor in the absolute prime of his life. He’s often been described as a ‘mother hen’ figure – “keeping his companions safe under his wing” – but that’s total nonsense. More than any other incarnation, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is a great strutting rooster. He’s the alpha male, the cock of the walk. Yes, he may sometimes look and sound like Quentin Crisp playing James Bond, but don’t be fooled by the lisp, the frilly blouses or the old lady hairdo. Doctor Three is our Time Lord’s most testosterone-fuelled incarnation. He likes his wine vintage and his cheese pungent. He loves fast cars, wears his TARDIS key like a medallion, and no doubt reeks of aftershave (Hai Karate, of course). He’s so powerfully potent, other men are emasculated merely by standing next to him. The boys from UNIT are as swooning and submissive as any girly assistant. Only the Master – the fox circling this hen house – ever poses any threat to the Doctor’s harem, but even all his powers of hypnosis cannot rival a single Pertwee ‘moment of charm’. And when those special scenes come – like here, with the cheese and wine, or later, when the Doctor is tied up in the cellar with Jo, laying out some rudimentary rules for time travel – it is impossible not to succumb to Pertwee’s quiet seduction. He’s a firm favourite of many, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that the Third Doctor dropped out of fashion with Doctor Who fandom for a good couple of decades. But this year, as his stories dominate the DVD schedule, his simple certainties seem like a breath of fresh air, and it’s proving a real treat to fall for him all over again.

The Doctor spends a quiet night at the big house, but any plans he may have for a champagne-and-caviar breakfast are ruined when a gang of would-be assassins, who have travelled back from the 22nd Century to execute Styles, take him and Jo captive. We’re whizzed through time ourselves – a jump ahead of our heroes, which is odd – to be shown a gloomy future Earth dominated by Daleks, Ogrons, and some uptight ladies in silver nail polish who look more deadly than either race of aliens.

As Daleks go, this bunch are more shrill and fretful-sounding than we’re used to, as if they’re worried that their whole scheme might unravel at any moment. (Given the balance of history, and the fact there are only three of them, this is not an unreasonable view for a Dalek to take.) They’re twitchy enough to begin with, but when they later hear that the Doctor’s in town, they fly into a right old paddy. This lack of cool may be why they miss their big chance, and fail to exterminate their enemy even when he’s strapped to a table right before their eyestalks. Idiots. They could have transmatted back to Skaro as heroes and been showered with prizes by a grateful Emperor. (A family hoverbout! A holiday for two on Darren!) But no – instead they keep busy by nagging their chief human lackey, the Controller, about output at the mines. “There-has-been-a-recent-drop-in-production-figures,” bleats the Gold Dalek. For shame! Doesn’t he know that the overnights are irrelevant in this brave new world – really not even worth mentioning – and to wait for consolidated mining figures later in the week? It’s sunny out, and we already know that the oppressed masses are cheerfully timeshifting.

The Controller is played by Aubrey Woods, and his performance is criticised by the producer on the commentary track of this DVD. Now, Barry Letts was right about many things in his Doctor Who career, but he’s entirely wrong when he describes Woods as being “too theatrical” in Day of the Daleks. Yes, the actor offers a couple of eccentric hand gestures in his early scenes, but this exuberance is soon brought under control, and Woods lends the Controller the air of a man consumed by fear and self-doubt, who’s just about keeping it hidden under a mask of machine-like efficiency. The fact that he conveys all this from beneath an ever-thickening layer of sparkly slap makes the achievement all the more impressive. Woods is the best thing about Day of the Daleks. He’s chilling and charming by turn, and really helps to sell the story’s best scene – where he and the Doctor discuss, over supper, how Earth came to be in this sorry state. However, as the Doctor knocks down each of the Controller’s justifications for working with the Daleks, one can’t help but feel an opportunity is being missed. Actually, it’s more than that. There’s a sense that the story loses track of the natural conclusion that several clues have already pointed us toward.

To explain… By this stage, we’ve learned that the rebels on future Earth have been receiving help from someone in the Daleks’ HQ. We’ve also seen the boss of a factory – a single-scene character – speaking to them on a secret radio, and getting clobbered for his trouble. But is that the end of it? Later in Part Three, the leader of the rebels, Monia, decides to rescue the Doctor. “There’s fresh information from one of our contacts at Control,” he says. “The Doctor is the Daleks’ deadliest enemy.” The key detail here is this: the only person at Control who knows this about the Doctor, at this stage is the story, is the Controller himself. So is he secretly helping Monia and friends? Could the Controller have provided the Dalek time machine vital to their plan to prevent the war? It feels like the story is heading to this revelation, but then loses its way – and that’s a shame. It would have been interesting for the Controller to have had to endure the Doctor’s lecture about being a traitor and a Quisling – without being able to defend himself, because the Daleks were listening – when he was secretly leading the resistance. The Doctor even accuses him of being “from a family of Quislings”, which is a curious detail to include, but perhaps the shame of this ignoble lineage would have offered a credible motivation for a man wishing to wipe away – in a very real sense – all those years of history. The Controller does win a moment of redemption before his ultimate extermination, as he helps the Doctor to escape back to our time, but the nagging feeling remains that – as the most interesting character in the piece – his fate could have been more cleverly entwined with the broader story.

As it goes on, Day of the Daleks has to slow down to fill out its running time – offering as silly an escape sequence as there ever was, where the Doctor is recaptured only because he runs his comedy tricycle into a patch of cow parsley – and then stops dead for a chunk of Part Four in order to lay out the big plot reveal from which the whole story has been extrapolated in reverse. “Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the war!” the Doctor tells the guerrillas. “You did it yourselves!” As time-paradox tales go, it feels charmingly straightforward in light of the recent adventures of River Song, for example, but it was something entirely new for Doctor Who back in 1972. Sadly, the story pulls its final punch, but while the climactic battle between UNIT and the Daleks has faced criticism over the years – chiefly due, I think, to it featuring one reckless wide shot too many – the real problem is the lack of involvement of any character we care about. The rebels are selflessly surrendering their entire existence to save the world, and no one spares them a second thought. Luckily, the Sir Reginald Styles peace talks seem to stay on track, though one assumes that the Chinese delegate was alarmed to be flown all the way from Peking only to ushered straight through a house which then exploded behind him. Perhaps it was passed off as some kind of special opening ceremony; a festival of fireworks in honour of his culture.

In the final analysis, while I doubt that Day of the Daleks can be anyone’s all-time favourite story – it’s too coolly mechanical for that – it certainly can’t be anyone’s least favourite. If you could feed all of the Doctor Who ever made into a blender and blitz it down, the pulpy concentrate remaining would surely taste of Day of the Daleks. With its Dalek invasion, a trip through time, some rebels, some friends and some monsters, some rescues and some escapes, this story must surely be the precise average of Doctor Who.

And that’s not a criticism – that’s a wonderful thing. Because if even average Doctor Who is as vivid and entertaining as this, then it’s little wonder that it has such a fierce and eternal hold upon us.

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DVD extras

Those Daleks can’t stop invading the Earth. They come to plunder our vital raw materials: our plywood and our castors. However, their most spectacular invasion was never shown on TV, and that’s because it happened at my house. Back in the day, ‘Super Action Transfers’ were the medium of choice for eager young storytellers. These were little drawings, crowded on a plastic sheet, that you could rub down onto a card diorama. The Doctor Who set featured Daleks battling soldiers in front of Buckingham Palace. Forced into a battle they couldn’t possibly win by their deranged commander – hiya!– the loyal lads of UNIT were incinerated by the monsters from Skaro. Oh the humanity! I’d do all the noises too, of course. “Exterm-in-ate!” went the Daleks. (The voice wasn’t perfect – but hey, they always sound different, don’t they?) “Pew! Pew!” went my lasers. “Ka-splat!” went the boys of UNIT. Honestly, it was brilliant.

And so it is that, as I watch the Special Edition of Day of the Daleks on the second disc here, I sympathize with producer Steve Broster’s desire to hear lasers go “Pew! Pew!” and see UNIT soldiers explode in a grim splatter of human potage. I also know that many people will enjoy this new presentation – so primal and visceral are its obsessions – and that any criticism from me will sound churlish in the extreme. But I’m afraid that’s not going to stop me.

I’ve never seen the point in slathering modern digital effects over old episodes. They always look wrong, and only ever jerk me out of the precious, carefully-spun fiction and remind me that I’m watching a television programme. And the arbitrary editing of quirky moments – mistakes, some would call then, but others not – always makes me question the producer’s sense of humour. The most galling example here is the loss of the wonderful “Any complications?”/“No complications!” exchange between the Controller and an Ogron. Surely this moment is one of the unique joys of Day of the Daleks? Furthermore, to cut it is also to imply that what remains is any less silly. This is a tricky thesis to uphold when we find, pasted into Part Four, the overacted extermination of a seemingly super-sized UNIT soldier – which strikes me as far more absurd than “No complications”. You may disagree – as is your right – but that only brings us back to the key point: who is to decide what is and isn’t a mistake to be cut? Can’t we just accept the programme as it was made rather than trying – fruitlessly, unhealthily – to make it somehow more ‘acceptable’? There’s always a creeping sense of shame about it.

I accept that few will take this matter quite so seriously. Many will argue that I don’t have to watch the Special Edition. “On this DVD, you can still see Day of the Daleks as it was transmitted in 1972,” says Steve Broster on a ‘Making Of’ extra. And that would be fair enough – if it were true. But someone has decided to ‘improve’ that version as well, by forcibly re-grading one scene from day to night, presumably because they’ve decided it was a mistake, and now fits better with the script. In the circumstances, this irritates the merry heck out of me.

Let’s move on to less contentious matters. A View From the Gallery is a nice little discussion piece looking at the work of Doctor Who vision mixer Mike Catherwood. As he chats with Barry Letts in BBC TV Centre, it all seems a little uncomfortable to begin with. Indicating a control panel, Catherwood says, “I remember a guy that made the next generation of mixers. He looked at the BBC desk and went: ‘Gee! Dedicated faders!’” Catherwood and Letts have a proper chuckle at this, although it’s hard to tell what’s so funny. Was this visitor cheering the dedication of said faders, or mocking it? “So there you go!” adds Catherwood, clearly feeling his point well made. Happily, matters soon become clearer, and the programme does a great job of bringing home the absurd, impossible conditions under which Doctor Who was made in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The entire methodology of production was structured around one factor: the expense of video recording equipment. Every detail of an episode had to be rehearsed and ready to be played out before the cameras in just a couple of hours of a manic evening, because that’s all the time with the recording machine they could afford. Two hours is no time at all; simply by thinking about what was achieved in those studio sessions will always blow the mind of this viewer. A trip to Cathay. The burning of Rome. The glaciers of a new Ice Age. And voyages to any number of alien worlds: to Skaro, to Karn, to Logopolis. All time and space conjured from tiny studios in West London, and always in a race against the clock. Astonishing.

We go out-and-about for a Now and Then programme looking at the filming locations used for Day of the Daleks, which also offers a sweet little insight into the world of the long-term Doctor Who fan. The narration tells us that the canal-towpath location seen throughout this adventure is now inaccessible, “despite the best efforts of your erstwhile producer”. And there’s the thing. It is a firmly-held belief in Doctor Who fandom that the word ‘erstwhile’ means ‘dedicated’, ‘hard-working’ – something of that flavour – as it is being used here. This comes, I think, from early issues of Doctor Who Weekly, where writer Jeremy Bentham would refer to “the erstwhile Sergeant Benton”. But erstwhile – you probably know this – means ‘former’, and Bentham was merely making quiet reference to the fact that Benton received a late promotion to warrant officer.  But it’s a misuse that turns up again and again in Doctor Who writing, and it’s time that someone spoke up. For this documentary alone, it must have got past a writer, a narrator and an executive producer at the very least, and now seems poised to infect a whole new generation of fans. It must be fought!

The final two extras of particular note are a couple of treats from the BBC archive. An item from Blue Peter marks the return of the Daleks to Doctor Who, and a film from Nationwide sees a line of school children preparing for an important visitor. Knee socks are pulled up as they assemble in the playground, duffels and parkas done up tightly against the cold. Then, to the stirring strings of Elgar, a two-foot-high Dalek arrives in a taxi – and that’s not something you see every day. This pint-sized arrival is the children’s prize for winning a Doctor Who story competition, although the kids seem less than entirely overwhelmed. “What’s more frightening than a Dalek?” asks the reporter. “Dracula!” comes the instant reply. “A ghost!” insists another. “A monster with spiny things sticking out of it!” So almost anything then? Please yourselves. “I don’t like it when the Daleks say ‘Disterminate!’” says an earnest little girl. That’s fair enough, my love ­­– but don’t get too attached to the idea. I’m sure someone will be along to fix that in just a moment.

The Sun Makers

1 Dec

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine. From 2011.

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Here’s a contradiction. For a story that’s considered one of the breezier diversions for the Fourth Doctor – a step out into the light from the gloomy gothic of his early years – when we join our hero in the TARDIS at the top of The Sun Makers, he looks likes someone’s spat in his jelly babies.

Fiction and reality are blurring for the Doctor and his companion. Tom Baker loathed the character of Leela, believing her – and rightly, I think – too violent for his series. Baker’s contempt bleeds through into the Doctor (if, that is, the two can ever seriously be considered as separate personalities). This is why, throughout her time in the TARDIS, Leela always feels more passenger than friend. We only have to remember the easy companionship the Doctor shared with Sarah – how her bright little smile could detonate his atomic grin – to see how much has changed. In The Sun Makers, Baker can barely bring himself to look at Louise Jameson when he’s talking to her. He makes eye contact with K9 more often. (Although, the Doctor’s hardly encouraging to his new dog either. “Leela – tell your tin pet to shut up!” he barks, having ordered Leela herself to shut up mere moments before.) But while we understand the backstage tensions, how might we explain away this sour atmosphere within the fiction? Perhaps a long time has passed between adventures, and the Doctor’s nerves become frayed when he’s stuck in the TARDIS for too long. They’ve resorted to playing board games, as one does when a holiday is rained off. Before the chess came out, maybe they completed all the Doctor’s jigsaws of old Gallifrey. “Ah! I’ve found a piece of the Untempered Schism.” “Areas of burnt orange suggest sky, Master.” “Shut up, K9.”

The TARDIS lands on Pluto, which brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s frequently been dismissed as “cheap”, The Sun Makers delivers a wider range of interesting locations and eye-catching sets than many a modern Doctor Who adventure. Certainly, the ‘cheap’ tag can be applied to an opening shot that sees Citizen Cordo arrive at an appointment with a beige, papery wall that’s been misguidedly enlivened with a clumsy cross of red insulation tape. But that’s a small misstep. The rest of the production goes to great lengths to transport us to an alien world; crossing England to find Pluto’s vast rooftops, endless corridors and dingy underground vaults. To help us mentally join these disparate locations together, the designer cannily invests in several tins of orange paint (‘Coral Canyon’, if you’re looking to match it from the current Dulux range), which he splashes liberally about. This allows the bulk of his budget to be spent on half-a-dozen sets, which range in quality from the perfectly serviceable – the rebels’ base, which seems better suited to a student production of Rent – to the rather fine. The best is the office of deputy chief plutocrat Gatherer Hade, which draws the eye back and up across various levels. However, quite what the Gatherer’s non-speaking staff are up to on their background platforms is anyone’s guess. One man leans raffishly on a railing, watching another randomly poke the air with a spider rest liberated from a snooker table. It seems that in the distant future, rich men will still be free to indulge even their most surreal fetishes.

But all this is mere sideshow. Pluto is not really built for us with sets and props. Truly, it is conjured from the air with words alone. No Doctor Who writer has ever spun alien worlds with the wit, precision and poetry of Robert Holmes. Over the past year, these DVD reviews have proudly taken to task Doctor Who stories that open to a screed of egregious exposition passed off as casual conversation – step forward Meglos, Frontios – and that’s because stories like The Sun Makers hold the rest to a better standard, by proving how cleverly and subtly it can be done. And from page one, line one, the bar is set high.

“Congratulations, Citizen. Your father ceased at 1:10” is surely Doctor Who’s drollest opening line. The brilliant black humour, as that cheery “congratulations” shunts into news of the death of a loved one, takes the breath away. And the conversation which follows – between Cordo and Hade as the former attempts to pay his death taxes – is nothing less than a work of art.

“Not on the desk!” bellows Hade, as Cordo tries put his purse down. “It might scar.” Cordo gives a little gasp of recognition. “It is wood, your honour?” “Of a kind called ‘ma-hog-ay-nee’” mispronounces Hade proudly, adding: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen wood before, have you citizen?” “Never,” replies awestruck Cordo. “We learned about it at the preparation centre,” he explains, before giving his own modest boast: “There was even a picture of a tree.” What’s so wonderful is that every line of this seemingly trivial exchange takes us a small step deeper into this world, with the punchline hanging on the most humble of words: ‘even’. In what kind of place might as mundane a thing as a picture of a tree command an ‘even’? With one word, Holmes summons an entire dystopia. And from here, the values of the society on Pluto – the impossible taxes, the high price of ordinary human compassion, the insignificance of the individual – are laid out for us at the same time as we mentally map a bleak world of foundries, walkways and correction centres.

This brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s known as one of Doctor Who’s comedic outings, The Sun Makers certainly serves up some dark and disturbing ideas. That opening Hade/Cordo scene – in addition to everything else it achieves – even finds time to hide away Doctor Who’s blackest joke. Hade explains to Cordo that only two small cash credits will help offset the 132 Talmar price of his father’s “Golden Death”. The first is his father’s “personal contribution” of seven Talmars; his total savings from 40 years work as a municipal servant, cleaning corridors. “Then,” Hade adds, “there’s a recycling allowance, based on a death weight of 84 kilos, of eight Talmars”. Seven Talmars. Eight Talmars. Robert Holmes has chosen those numbers with care. He’s telling us – and you can almost hear him chuckling wickedly in the background as he refills his pipe – that the decaying meat of this man’s corpse has a greater value than his entire life’s work; that Cordo’s father is worth more to him dead than he ever was alive. It’s a bleak view, to put it mildly. And, while we think about that, what might “recycling” of a body mean on a world without trees, where all food must be artificial? This is twisted, sinister stuff, exquisitely woven into Hade’s breezy enumeration of an invoice.

Again and again, it’s the words that prove The Sun Makers greatest joy. There’s a wonderful little scene with the Gatherer and the Doctor, where they each think they are getting one over on the other. “While you’re here, you must get about a bit,” suggests Hade, as if there might be an open-topped bus tour departing any minute. There’s more fun with the ‘noises off’ of Pluto, with mention of such intriguing ne’er-do-wells as “Wurgs and Keeks”, and the “arrogant Ajacks”. Later, the Gatherer and his boss, the Collector, dismiss the downtrodden masses with alliteration and assonance: they are “factory fodder” and “cellar dwellers”. The Collector is a goblin creature who runs the whole cruel business of Pluto; a snivelling Rumpelstiltskin jealously hoarding his gold. The Gatherer’s habit of buttering-up his tiny boss by using synonyms for ‘large’ is such good fun – there’s “Your Colossus!”, “Your Hugeness!”, “Your Amplification!” and many more – but what’s even better is when things begin to go wrong on Pluto and the flattery becomes more slowly more inappropriate and insulting. “Your Monstrosity!”, “Your Corpulence!”. What a joy it is.

Unfortunately, Robert Holmes rather lets his love of the macabre and the gruesome get the better of him when we meet Pluto’s rebel faction, down in the basement. “Show courtesy to my rank,” spits leader Mandrel, “or I’ll cut your skin off inch by inch.” And the threat of slice-and-dice continues, mostly thanks to Leela. “Before I die, I’ll see this rathole ankle-deep in blood!” she vows. And most wince-inducing of all, she promises Mandrel: “I’ll split you!” It’s vivid stuff, to say the least. Doctor Who couldn’t get away with anything close to this charnel house language today, and that’s no bad thing. It does, however, give us what must stand as the most typical Robert Holmes line of all time: “Mouth those mindless pieties down here, Citizen Cordo, and you’ll get yer throat slit!” It’s just another passing threat, but in it we find all Holmes’ favourite tricks in play at once.

Happily, The Sun Makers has a superb cast to deliver its brilliant script. What’s most striking is how relaxed and well-rehearsed they all are. Tom Baker warms up as soon as he’s away from Leela and working with the guest actors, and he’s clearly having a ball when the Doctor confronts the Collector at the end of the story. He and actor Henry Woolf have made the most of rehearsals and worked out so many little bits of business. The bald Collector’s wistful fondling of the Doctor’s curls is particularly cute, and the moment when he slams his fist down on a vital control, only for it to spring up and be caught in mid-air by the Doctor, is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment of slapstick. When you watch these scenes, try to ignore Baker and focus only on Woolf. You’ll rarely see an actor working so hard. Emotions flutter across his face like colours on a squid; pride then bitterness then glee then confusion then panic. It’s one of the wittiest and most entertaining guest performances ever given in Doctor Who.

“So what’s Contingency Plan B?” jokes the Doctor as he unravels the economy on Pluto and the Collector liquidates himself. The Sun Makers is the first of a particular subset of Doctor Who stories where our hero stumbles across a sick society that is a twisted version of our own world – with one shortcoming of modern life extrapolated to become its defining characteristic – and blasts through it like antibiotics. We’ll see this again in Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol, Gridlock and The Beast Below, but The Sun Makers remains the most enjoyable, due in part to the fact that the Doctor’s fourth incarnation lacks the pious streak that can make his successors seem so insufferably smug and superior at times. When he leaves Pluto in the hands of those murderous rebels, with not a single word of caution or advice, there something deliciously reckless about it. It’s refreshing not to be obliged to ponder what we’ve learned this day, or to stop to mourn the terrible sacrifices that have been made in the name of liberty. There’s no call to hail-the-unalive-Pex, to weep for the rubbery mush of the Face of Boe, or salute that brave and noble space whale. Sod ’em. We’re outta here.

Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor explains to Leela how he defeated the Collector. “I fed a two per cent growth tax into the computers, index-linked,” he says. “It blew the economy.” It’s a joke, but it’s not so far from the jargon we now hear on the news every day, in this new era of recession: the quantitative easing, the short-selling, the subprime toxic debt that brought down banks and poisoned economies around the world. And suddenly we see that The Sun Makers packs even more of a satirical punch today than it did on transmission. In 1977, Robert Holmes was stinging from a tax bill, and used Doctor Who to vent his anger. In a decade of spiralling inflation and punishing taxation, older viewers could enjoy the joke of Hade’s list of bizarre taxes, and taxes on taxes. In the Collector, Holmes was clearly mocking the government. But today, we see politicians as almost powerless in the face of the machinations of big business, and watching The Sun Makers, we see Cordo is tyrannised not by a government, but by a corporation – which controls him through his debts, and through his fear of debt. The most chilling detail of all is how the Company keeps its workforce pacified. The PCM gas it pumps into the cities doesn’t simply dope the citizens. Instead, it raises anxiety levels by a tiny degree, so that everyone is so consumed by their own everyday fears and self-doubt, and can never muster the will to rebel. It’s a horrific idea.

Before becoming a writer, Robert Holmes was an army officer on active service, then a policeman and later a crime reporter for a newspaper. One could easy believe that these experiences left him with a jaded view of human nature, but instead it seems to have sharpened the sense of humour he must have needed to survive the jungles of Burma and the mean streets of London. But that special mix of cynicism and optimism ultimately gave us some of the richest, cleverest Doctor Who stories that will ever be written. And The Sun Makers is among that number.

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DVD extras

Principal production documentary Running From the Tax Man is a smart piece of work with a good range of interviewees, and includes some insightful commentary from historian Dominic Sandbrook. The programme guides us through The Sun Makers’ political backstory, and detours for a discussion about Pluto’s demotion from the solar system. However, given that the most significant aspect of The Sun Makers is that it’s very, very funny, this documentary sadly fails to get to grips with the humour of the piece. In 1985, in a rare interview, Robert Holmes made it clear that he knew he was pushing his luck with The Sun Makers: “working at the anarchic boundaries for Doctor Who,” he called it. It’s this anarchy that makes The Sun Makers special, and the documentary doesn’t quite connect with it.

The commentary – which features Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, guest actor Michael Keating and late director Pennant Roberts – is a lot of fun, and shines a light on the relationship between this Doctor and assistant. There’s no doubt that Jameson is among the most talented actresses ever to stand at the Doctor’s side. Leela is an absurd, fantastical character – this pedantic, childlike savage in a leather swimsuit –  and the most high-concept companion there’s ever been, but there’s never a single moment when we don’t believe in her. That’s all down to the skill of Jameson, and her totally immersive and deadly earnest acting style.

But there are all kinds of actors; and when, on the commentary, Jameson is quick to praise the “honest” performance of Cordo actor Roy Macready, Baker laughs. “We didn’t bandy around words like ‘honest’ back then,” he says. Jameson also speaks of “honouring the text”, and we remember that Baker generally liked to ‘honour’ a Doctor Who script by christening it “whippet shit” and frisbee-ing it out the window onto Acton High Street. And the two actors’ differing senses of humour mean that Jameson never seems to know when she’s having her leg pulled. Time and again she takes some bit of Baker whimsy at face value, and we can hazard a guess as to how quickly Baker might have become bored with his jokes not being ‘got’, back in the day. This was never – I think – a meeting of minds, and one can imagine how that might also have been a source of friction on set, above and beyond Baker’s distaste for the character of Leela.

Tom Baker has mellowed over the years, and he and Jameson are now on good terms. For many years, Baker put a great deal of space between himself and Doctor Who, but recently he has returned, and seems eager to – for want of a better way of putting it – give something back to the fans. He’s now “coming soon from Big Finish Productions”; something that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. Big Finish has always worked hard to recapture the particular atmosphere of Doctor Who’s various eras, but here’s one case where this listener hopes that they fail – in the nicest possible way. Life doesn’t offer many second chances. And so, as Baker and Jameson reassume their roles, it would be lovely to find that, on TV, we only saw the rainy days in the TARDIS. Soon, I trust – and only 33 years too late – we’ll hear the Doctor and Leela laughing together, and finally find them to be the very best of friends.

 

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